Saturday, December 22, 2007

who needs a reality-based education, anyway? eh?


Once again, Wiley's creation Danae hits it right on the nail! Do I want a student like her in my classroom when I start another Evolution class next month, however?

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Lewis Black on the creation!

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Monday, December 10, 2007

No Way Home


While spending some quality time with a sink-full of dishes this past weekend, I caught up, as has become my custom, with some time-shifted radio - aka podcasts of various shows (NPR being a prominent source). And I was pleasantly surprised to find, on the December 5, 2007 edition of Fresh Air, Terry Gross interviewing the Princeton ecologist and birder David Wilcove, who has a new book out that I also had somehow not heard of: No Way Home - The Decline of the World's Great Animal Migrations. You can listen to the interview online via NPR (realaudio), download the podcast on iTunes if you are quick (itunes usually has the last 10 shows), or click here for an mp3 version. Enjoy!

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Friday, November 30, 2007

Forget neutral - how do I jump off this train heading over the cliff?

At least I'm not in Texas, where the State Board of Education's runaway train, driven by their religio-political-appointee Chair, is taking all the children aboard with them as they head full-steam off the cliff and into the dark-ages! So worried are they about protecting the delicate sensibilities of children from the assaults of the E-word from a philosopher of science (SHOCK! HORROR!) that they had to force Chris Comer, the Texas director of science curriculum to resign for the crime of forwarding an email announcing a talk by said philosopher: you know, Barbara Forrest, that scary old wicked-witch who testified in the Dover trial! And was seen most recently on PBS's re-enactment of the trial, explaining the transitional fossil she discovered connecting creationism with intelligent design. We can't have young minds corrupted by such truths can we? But if you want to read that horrible email (only when the children are asleep!), it is available on the immoral internets, of course.

Texas Citizens for Science has the whole sordid story. What struck me was the Board of Education's use of the word "neutral":

TEA Policy of Neutrality Toward Creationism and Evolution

TEA has a new policy, one of neutrality between biological evolution and Intelligent Design Creationism. This new policy was put in place in September when Dr. Don McLeroy--an outspoken Creationist and activist for Intelligent Design Creationism and its marketing campaign who was appointed the new Chair of the State Board of Education (SBOE) in July--decided to start giving the TEA staff some tough love. By forwarding an email message that publicized a lecture in Austin by Barbara Forrest, a Southeastern Louisiana University professor of philosophy and Dover trial witness, that supported evolution (as required by the Texas science standards) and opposed the teaching of Intelligent Design Creationism, Chris Comer ran afoul of the new policy and was asked to resign or be fired immediately. As we will see, this excuse to terminate Ms. Comer was trumped-up and illegitimate. The memo to her from the TEA contained several other criticisms, all of which were petty or insultingly insignificant. Amazingly, this memo is now available for the public to read thanks to the American-Statesman (see below), and it reveals the lengths to which the top administrators of our state's public education agency will go to silence dissent from their new policy of not criticizing Creationism.

when their agenda all along was something else.
The real reason Director of Science Chris Comer was forced to resign is because the top TEA administrators and some SBOE members wanted her out of the picture before the state science standards--the science TEKS--were reviewed, revised, and rewritten next year beginning in January 2008, and she would have some influence to make sure the standards were scientifically accurate and of high quality. Plans are underway by some SBOE members and TEA administrators to diminish the requirement to teach about evolutionary biology in the Biology TEKS and to require instead that biology instructors "Teach the Controversy" about the "weaknesses" of evolution, that is, teach the Creationist-inspired and -created bogus controversy about evolution that doesn't exist within legitimate science. They may even want specific bogus weaknesses required. There are, of course, no legitimate scientific weaknesses with biological evolution as the natural process is understood by scientists. At the level at which it is taught in high school, evolutionary biology has no weaknesses, gaps, or problems. At higher levels, there are poorly-understood concepts, but these are not weaknesses: these are areas that need more research. Therefore, it is duplicitous to pretend such "weaknesses" and "controversy" exist. The so-called controversy is a manufactured controversy, one created primarily by the Discovery Institute to trump up the notion that there are disagreements among scientists about evolution and these should be taught to high school students. This "teach the controversy" and "weaknesses of evolution" ploy is an attempt to disparage, diminish, and distort evolution so students will not have confidence in one of the most highly-corroborated explanations in science.
Still think you can remain neutral on this moving train?

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Mushrooms, Ecology, and Santa Claus!

Yes, its that time again! Our next Café Scientifique meeting is coming up soon. Please note that we are moving to a new location for this one, because Lenny's Bistro is closing down this week. So here's a reminder of the December Café with the new location.

Central Valley Café Scientifique presents:

Mushrooms, Ecology, & Santa Claus

by Dr. James Farrar
Plant Pathologist, California State University-Fresno

Monday, December 3, 2007, 6:30-8:30 PM
DiCicco’s Restaurant & Pizzeria
408 Clovis Avenue, Clovis, CA 93612; tel:559.299.2711

The restaurant is located at the southwest corner of Clovis Avenue and 4th Street. We are working with the restaurant to have a simplified menu of options available for the meeting to make things flow more smoothly.

And yes, we are also looking for a more suitable venue, so if you know of a more "bohemian" pub/cafe that might accommodate us, let me know.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

NOVA smacks down the cdesign proponentsists!


Wow, was that ever a serious smackdown that NOVA just handed down to proponents of intelligent design this evening! No wonder the IDiots at the DI are unhappy. Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial turned out to be an outstanding and gripping documentary of the saga of Kitzmiller vs. Dover School District. Even my 7-yr old Darwinista daughter was pulled in to watching large chunks of it. This one is definitely going on my holiday DVD order list from PBS, and I (like many of my colleagues, undoubtedly) will be pulling some of the outstanding science exposition bits out of it to add some multimedia pizazz to my lectures in Evolution next spring. Not that the social drama wasn't interesting, but I wouldn't necessarily take up classroom time with that material.

I could list a number of great things about this documentary were I to attempt a comprehensive review, but I won't do that here - there are many other better reviews out there that you can read online, including one from the multi-taskmaster PZ Myers, who live-blogged it! If you missed watching the show, wait for the DVD, or go online to the NOVA site on/after Nov 16 and watch it there - and if you can also multi-task, you could fire up the Pharyngula live coverage along with your popcorn and enjoy the thumping of intelligent design in all its multimedia goodness.

As for me, here are some quick highlights, my immediate favorite moments:

  • I somehow didn't know, and was therefore especially struck by the fact that the whole thing started in Dover over this mural by a student:


    I love it when artists get the creationists' goat - although in this case the mural was actually burned down by (apparently) the school board member who thus got the ball rolling on this trial. It so often starts with burning art, doesn't it?
  • The various segments of science interspersed between recreations of the trial (is it just me, or would we all be better off with a good Hollywood recreation of the courtroom drama? How about "Inherit the Wind - Part II"?) were especially good. My favorite would have to be the segment showing the discovery of the transitional tetrapod ancestor fossil Tiktaalik roseae (pictured above), which happened in parallel to the trial.
  • Another wonderful science segment addresses the evolution of the infamous bacterial flagellum. Not only do they have beautiful animations of the flagellum and its likely precursor secretory apparatus, but Nova also shows you how to do proper journalism when confronted with two unequal but opposite arguments. Rather than merely regurgitating the "irreducibly complex" flagellum argument in a (Be)he-said / she-said frame, the show brilliantly brings in DeRosier (Behe's acknowledged source for the idea) who systematically takes apart Behe's argument! One side can be wrong indeed - and how badly wrong at that!
  • And the transitional fossil of the day has to be "cdesign proponentsists"! It was immensely entertaining to watch Barbara Forrest in action digging through the 7000 strata of buried manuscript to find and piece together the missing links between the extinct (I wish) "creationists" and the soon to be endangered "design proponents" via this lovely fossil resulting from a copy-n-paste mutation.
What fun!

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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial

Clear your schedule next tuesday evening at 8:00 PM, or set your Tivo/DVR folks! For the PBS series NOVA is set to air Judgment Day, which Nature's review promises to be a rigorous documentary covering the Dover vs. Kitzmiller trial. How rigorous, you ask? Well the only major participant of that famous trial who refused to be interviewed for the documentary is Michael Behe! They even have Judge Jones reading from his ruling, but no Behe! Surely this ought to be worth watching, right? Will it convince the naive believers (not the hardcore who will keep re-inventing creationism by some other name) that ID holds no water? Maybe not, but this could be one more thing worth keeping on hand to play to some of the misinformed (but "open minded") relatives one might meet over the holiday season, no?

Here's a preview:

video

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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Café Scientifique - El Dia De Los Muertos


On Oct. 1, we had a successful launch to the Central Valley Café Scientifique, our new forum for informal conversations about science, centered around topical presentations by area scientists. The first event, where Paul Crosbie talked about what's killing Sea Otters drew a sizeable crows of science enthusiasts, almost overflowing Lenny's Bistro Deli. If you are in the vicinity next Monday, I would like to invite you to our next meeting, a post-Halloween / Day of the Dead postmortem special. Here's the announcement:

Central Valley Café Scientifique presents:

"Over My Dead Body: A Coffeehouse Discussion"

by

Dr. Kevin Miller
Forensic Biochemist, Chemistry Dept. CSU-Fresno

Monday, November 5, 2007, from 6:30-8:30 PM
Lenny's Bistro Deli in River Park (across from Edwards' cinemas)

For further details, visit: http://www.valleycafesci.org/

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Sunday, October 7, 2007

Teaching science in a benighted valley


Why is it that a wonderful week which saw the successful full-house launch of the Central Valley Café Scientifique on Monday night, and ended with a stimulating Saturday morning workshop on Understanding Evolution organized by the Fresno Unified School District is brought crashing down on Sunday morning by the Fresno Bee with this dreck splashed on its front page?? Pardon me, but my scientist colleagues (and I) from CSU-Fresno and science teachers from FUSD, have worked our asses off (with help from our administrators and civic leaders), to keep science in the forefront of the cultural discourse in the Central Valley. Especially this past week which felt pretty rewarding last night! Yet the Bee does not think even the Café Scientifique, of which they have been made aware multiple times by several of us and even the university, merits not one lousy little paragraph of coverage - but some local schoolteacher's search for Bigfoot (yes, you read that right!) merits full frontal coverage??!! What is wrong with this scenario? Why are these demons still haunting this valley?

I had just woken up from what I thought had been a well-earned night of sleep - the first full 7-hours of sleep I've had in a week that saw the above events and my wife's successful Ph.D. thesis defense (also in the sciences - she studied the nocturnal prosimian primate Slender Loris) sandwiched in between - only to be smacked squarely in the face by the Bee and its biigfoot story. Please excuse me if I feel like crawling straight back into bed now...

I swear, some days, its just so damn hard to keep that candle lit in the dark, Carl...!

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Monday, September 10, 2007

And you thought your last flight was looong!


Check out this annual commute, suffered by that long-distance migrating champion, the Bar Tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica). As reported on the Asia-Pacific Shorebird Network, one of these Godwits has just been observed making a non-stop flight of 11,570 Km from Alaska to New Zealand. The female known only as E7 (the name is Godwit; Bar-tailed Godwit... etc.) flew for 8 days and 12 hours clear across the Pacific (not even stopping at Hawaii or Fiji en route!) before arriving, on September 7, close to where it was tagged last February at Piako in New Zealand. This is one of the coolest results of new satellite tracking technology that is allowing such extreme flights to be monitored. You can even watch the whole flight path on your computer if you have Google Earth - just download the kmz file for an interactive version of the image below.



The kmz file has data from all birds followed in this project, allowing you to trace movements of individual birds, and isolate ones of interest, as I did above. You will also be able to follow future movements (e.g., see how and when the other birds make it down to NZ) as long as the transmitters are active, and someone is updating the database online.

Until now, the evidence that these birds actually flew back across the Pacific non-stop was indirect and circumstantial (Gill et al 2005). As described in that paper, it took much greater detective work to follow the trails of these birds, piecing together information on when and where different kinds of godwits had been seen, comparing occurrences in spring vs. autumn, and using flight simulation models to estimate if they could do such long-distance flights. And their conclusion was that the birds hewed closer to shore during spring (northern hemisphere spring), stopping to refuel at various depots along the way, but took a direct route across the Pacific in autumn (northern). Well, we can put all the detective tools and models aside and celebrate their accuracy in predicting what we now know: at least this one female (E7) actually did it last week, flying solo across the length of the Pacific - even weighed down with a satellite transmitter! I wonder how much faster it would have been if it didn't have that added load - but we can't know that! I wish I could track the movements of my beloved little Phylloscopus Leaf Warblers - but that may never happen without much greater miniaturization, perhaps even some nano-technology (like something out of Star Trek), I'm afraid, given that those birds themselves weigh between 7-13 grams.

The Bar-Tailed Godwits, meanwhile, have also been the subject of some really cool research (see Landis-Ciannelli et al 2003) on how their bodies can take the punishment of such extreme flights. It turns out that the internal organs of these birds (and probably most long-distance migrants) are much more flexible that one might imagine: they are literally able to re-arrange their tissues to prepare for and sustain the long flights. And the tissue-reorganization is quite dynamic. First, the digestive organs (stomach, liver, kidneys, intestines) show considerable growth (hypertrophy) either before autumn migration, or more quickly, at stopovers en-route during spring migration (why do they stop during spring, but not autumn?), which makes sense as they need to load up on fuel for the flight. But its not just fuel they are adding for the next phase, for in addition to extreme fat loads, they also bulk up their flight muscles, which reach peak mass just before departure. Meanwhile, as fuel reserves and muscles build up, the intestines shrink, atrophying to minimal levels, presumably reducing extra baggage for these long flights: these birds are literally jettisoning (or rather repackaging) as much cargo as they can, from everything except the engines (flight muscles) and fuel tank (fat reserves)! How cool is that! Talk about breaking your tooth-brush in half to cut down your backpack weight for a long climb...

A consequence of losing all that gut mass is that, upon arrival (either at refueling stops or eventual destinations) these birds are not only exhausted, but they even lack the capacity to eat and digest a proper meal. They first have to re-grow those intestines to be able to process any food they might find. So, if you live along coasts where migrants routinely make landfall after long oceanic flights, and come across exhausted birds landing in unlikely places (e.g., hummingbirds at off-shore oil-rigs in the Gulf of Mexico; Indian Pittas turning up in the middle of Bombay), and want to rescue them, perhaps you should pause before trying to (force-)feed the birds, for they may not have the ability to digest any food at all. And it can take 24 hours or more for the guts to regrow, as tissue is being reallocated from elsewhere (muscles?) to intestines. Which may be why these birds appear particularly vulnerable at that stage.

And what about that question I raised earlier: why do these Godwits make stops during spring, but not autumn migration? I think it has to do with their need to be the first ones on the breeding grounds to maximize breeding success, and uncertainty about conditions on the northern breeding grounds: it pays to get to the breeding grounds early enough, but not too soon, if you know what I mean. In addition, spring migration is all about breeding, another energetically demanding act, for which you have to have some reserves available; in autumn on the other hand, all you have to do is to get to the wintering ground with the arctic cold chasing yout tail, and focus on staying alive through the next few months for another shot at the reproductive lottery. This sets up different selection pressures on the two migratory phases, resulting in different strategies. It also sets up differences between males and females: in spring, it is usually the males who are in a greater hurry to get up and establish breeding territories before females show up; females (like E7), on the other hand, need to conserve more resources to cover their higher energetic/nutritional demands. And ongoing work should help us test and understand some of these ideas better.

Meanwhile, I'll think twice before complaining about the stiffness of my body when I fly across the Pacific en-route to India next time.

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Thursday, September 6, 2007

It started 160 million years ago

At least, it now seems to have according to a paper in the latest Nature covered on NPR yesterday as: Dinosaur-Killing Asteroid Traced to Breakup Event. According to a new analysis by asteroid researchers Bill Bottke and colleagues, it appears that that fateful meteor that struck the earth 65 million years ago resulting in the extinction of dinosaurs originated as a fragment of a larger (170 Km wide) asteroid that broke up during a collision in the asteroid belt 160 million years ago. That collision produced a rain of debris much of which went on to produce a cluster of pockmarks on our moon (at a rate above the background average, which is what led these researchers to analyze it more closely) and one large chunk which took out the dinosaurs, cleaning the vertebrate evolutionary slate up a little bit for the eventual emergence of us! Yay!!

Here's the tantalizing tidbit tracing the chain of events from the abstract of the Nature paper:

Fragments produced by the collision were slowly delivered by dynamical processes to orbits where they could strike the terrestrial planets. We find that this asteroid shower is the most likely source (>90 per cent probability) of the Chicxulub impactor that produced the Cretaceous/Tertiary (K/T) mass extinction event 65 Myr ago.
That Nature link above gives you the abstract, with the rest hidden behind a pay firewall, of course (and we don't yet have Nature available online here at CSU-Fresno!). I don't understand why Nature doesn't make their editorials and News & Views features more available, but there is a brief editorial summary of this paper here. And Bottke's website may have the reprint up at some point, but meanwhile you can start by listening to that NPR story.

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Monday, September 3, 2007

Kinky? Gross? But they're just beetles...

You know, those little creatures that any mythical "creator" must have an inordinate fondness for, because there are so many of them! So what's kinky/gross about them? Well, you just have to read this really sexy new paper by Martin Edvardsson in the latest Animal Behaviour:
Female Callosobruchus maculatus mate when they are thirsty: resource-rich ejaculates as mating effort in a beetle
Don't tell me you would pass up that tantalizing title if you found it on the newsstand! But if you still find it dry and academic, you can always turn to some friendly science blogger to pre-digest it for you: Jake Young adds good background with a video so you can see what bruchid beetles are, while Mo the Neurophilosopher offers the truly scary photo of male genitalia in these beetles.

Its all "about nuptial gifts (basically, females will trade sex for drinks)" as pondering pikaia puts it, although it seems to me these females have a rather rougher bargain than that - just look at that penis!

Ain't evolution cool?

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Now this is a real social web!


In case you haven't heard this story already, check out The spider(s) that ate Texas at the Bug Girl’s Blog. The web is so big it even got covered by National Public Radio on friday afternoon.

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Friday, August 31, 2007

Cafe Scientifiqué comes to the Central Valley!

Yes, indeed! As announced by Scott Hatfield earlier this summer, we finally have our own Cafe Scientifiqué here in the great Central Valley of California. I'm excited to be involved in launching this, as I've been trying to get one going here for a year or so. I am glad Scott converged on the idea also this summer, and we were able to come together with some colleagues and members of the community to actually make it happen! So here it is!!

The full email announcement is below the fold, and I've set up a website with additional information at valleycafesci.org, and a Google Group for email announcements.

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Welcome to an exciting new forum for talking about science, engaging in dialogue about current science with non-scientists, and generally raising the science culture in our valley: the Central Valley Cafe Scientifiqué!

What's a Cafe Scientifiqué? I think of it as a science/nerd equivalent of a poetry reading, or Fresno's Art-Hop events, or the philosophers' Socrates Cafes. It is a free-wheeling discussion of a science topic, centered around a presentation from a scientist, in an informal setting outside the normal channels of academia. Meetings are therefore usually held at a local cafe or pub where anyone is welcome to wander in (including, especially, people who don't normally seek out science seminars or lectures on campus), listen to a brief science talk, and engage in thought-provoking conversation over food and drinks. These cafes started in the UK a decade or so ago, and have spread throughout the world - our closest ones are several in the Bay area.

Our Cafe Scientifique will meet on the First Mondays of every month starting on October 1, 2007:

Venue: Lenny's Bistro Deli, in River Park, north Fresno, across from the movie theaters.
Time: 6:30-8:30; with the main presentation starting around 7:00 followed by discussion.

First topic: Cute, cuddly, and dead - so what's killing sea otters?
Speaker: Dr. Paul Crosbie, Biology Department, CSU-Fresno

Please visit our website for further details. And if you wish to keep up with announcements of future events via email, please join the valleycafesci google group, accessible through a link at the bottom of our main page.

Please share this announcement with anyone you think might be interested. We look forward to having you there for some good conversations!


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Friday, August 3, 2007

And to make it fair and balanced, here's Dawkins on the Colbert Report

Colbert interviewed Richard Dawkins last fall (Oct 17, 2006).

Here's Part 1 of the interview:



and Part 2:

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Darwin's Einstein? Colbert Reports - You Decide!

Should all science begin with looking for how to limit a theory?

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Thursday, July 5, 2007

Why are chilies hot?

If you've taken one of my classes where I talk about the scientific method and the nature of questions and explanations (i.e., most of my classes, but esp. Evolution), you've heard me tell a little personal anecdote to illustrate the difference between Proximate and Ultimate explanations. One about the question: Why are chilies hot?

If you just want the answer to the question, go here to read Bora's nice essay on the topic. If you are interested in my anecdote also, read on...

Some 11 years ago, when I was in the throes of writing my dissertation, I shared an apartment, for a short while, with Ajay Chitnis, a developmental neurobiologist then postdoc-ing at the Salk Institute (he's now at NIH). It was one of the most stimulating few months of my life, as we both enjoyed cooking, especially spicy foods (not just curries, mind you, but world cuisine!), as well as talking about all matters scientific, philosophical, literary, culinary, and cinematic, well into the wee hours of the night - ahh the intellectual ferment of those grad student days...! I don't think I have ever had such a wide-ranging ongoing discourse with anyone else before or since, so in some ways he was the best flat-mate I ever had. I learnt a great deal from Ajay about evo-devo in those early days of the field, and like to think that some of my evolutionary-ecological blatherings found some foothold in his fertile imagination.

Anyway, to the point of the anecdote: one day we had a rather intense discussion about chillies, starting with my asking the question: why are chilies hot? Ajay's immediate answer was, because they have capsaicin in them! So naturally, given the smart-ass evolutionary ecologist in me, my comeback was, but why do they have capsaicin? why are they hot, again? Why have they evolved that way? And, as we wound up talking about this for the next hour, it also dawned on us that our initial responses said something about the nature of explanations we were seeking: Ajay, with his training in medicine and molecular biology, had first come up with a proximate biochemical answer to the question, whereas my own focus was on the ultimate evolutionary answer. Obviously, both are necessary to fully answer the question, thus the pedagogic value of this anecdote.

What had triggered our discussion? It was a seminar by a grad student visiting my lab at the time - Joshua Tewksbury, who was conducting some neat field studies on the coevolution of chillies and their seed dispersers in the Arizona desert at the time. And why am I bringing this up now? Because Bora has just posted a very nice summary of some of Josh's research - he's written it so well that I have to send you to his blog for the answer to this question. And watch his blog, for he promises to follow up with an exploration of why we are the only weird mammals with a hot tooth!

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A time-traveling Tangled Bank

The latest edition (#82) of the Tangled Bank, that venerable blog carnival, is now up in the form of a most excellent temporal travelogue by a Derwin Darwin II, alleged nephew of Charles Darwin, describing encounters from the "Blogos Fear" of a whole bunch of things evolutionary in the year 2007!

Hats off to Greg Laden for so lovingly rendering this edition of the Tangled Bank in the venerated genre of victorian travel writing.

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Friday, June 15, 2007

CAFE SCIENTIFIQUE!


Here's a fabulous idea that can help build support for science education in our community! Yes, it's Cafe Scientifique! This forum for promoting public engagement with science began in the UK, but since has spread to North America. There are Cafes in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Los Angeles and San Diego in California. Now, it is hoped that by building a broad coalition of local educators, academics and business people we can get this venture off the ground here in Fresno this fall.

If you're a Fresnan, and you would like to be placed on a mailing list that will notify you of Cafe Scientifique events and other news, please send an email with your name and (if you like) your 'snail-mail' address, to:

epigene13@gmail.com

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

More godless eloquence from PZ Myers

If you read just one thing today or this week, go read this wonderful essay on how much more awesome the Gilgamesh, the Bible, the Koran, the Gita and all your religious texts are, not to mention the concept of God itself, if you but stop taking them literally as words of some imaginary being, rather than as wonderful expressions of entirely human awe and anguish over our existence in this strange, beautiful, indifferent universe. And please stop telling us atheists that we just don't get it about your faith - as PZ expresses it far more eloquently than I can, we get it all right, I'd say we get it at a deeper level than many believers do.

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Gallop poll says our work as educators remains cut out for us...

Over the past few days various people have noted, in the blogsphere and in my email inbox, the latest USA TODAY/Gallup Poll results pertaining to Americans' views on Evolution vs. Creationism. The main results, as summarized (below) by John Lynch, are causing much understandable despair among science bloggers and friends:

  • "Evolution, that is, the idea that human beings developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life" is probably or definitely false: 44%
  • "Creationism, that is, the idea that God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years" is probably or definitely true: 66%
  • 15% said that they would be more likely to vote for a candidate that did not believe in evolution.
This made Lynch want to go lie down even as some of his commenters and Laelaps question the methodology of the poll. PZ Myers, on the other hand, accepts the validity of the results since they match his personal impressions, and noting the discrepancy between those first two numbers, concludes "that about half the country is ignorant or deluded about science, anyway." Greg Laden, meanwhile, was reminded of the Alexander Hamilton quote (alleged) that "The masses are asses", although his somewhat more careful reading of the poll results led him to think there has been a slight improvement (presumably since the last such poll) although the 15-30% respondents inclined to rejecting a presidential candidate professing belief in evolution suggests the continuing strength of the religious fundamentalist minority. While I share these concerns, a few thoughts are nagging me about this poll and the blogsphere reaction to it.

First, what to make of the 82% of those polled who claimed that they were familiar (41% very familiar) with evolution, or the 86% that said the same (50% very familiar) about creationism? I think these numbers reflect, in part, the average person's wish to not appear ignorant with a pollster, some (considerable?) hubris about how much they truly do understand, and, perhaps most importantly, our failure as educators in making people able to see the difference! This may be another sign of how ignorant/deluded much of the country is about science - and how much our work is cut out.

At the same time, however, I'm uncomfortable with calling the masses asses, because that is the kind of "framing" likely to make them turn away from rather than towards scientists for knowledge. I'm more inclined to wonder about the poll's sample size and methodology - but note the widespread acceptance of similar Gallup polls by a variety of people across the political spectrum; would they be able to continue publishing similar poll results if the methodology was as egregiously wrong as Laelaps suggests? Perhaps I am being naive on that point, but I do have to question the design of the poll questions which seek separate responses for evolution and creationism (of the Young Earth variety, i.e., YEC) given that 53% accept Evolution, while 66% accept YEC - why not make it a binary choice between the two notions? As it is, it seems clear that a lot of people are quite capable of simultaneously believing multiple contradictory ideas without their heads exploding! Sounds like some students I know...

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Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Read the latest "Tangled Bank"

Looking for some intellectual stimulation of a summer afternoon? Go browse the 81st edition of the Tangled Bank, the oldest blog carnival, still going strong, at Behavioral Ecology Blog.

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Do you think your grade in this class had to do with my arm strength?

And does my recent mysterious muscular fatigue then explain why there were so many A's (9/30) and B's (11/30) in the Evolution class this spring? Well, Daniel Solove has let out the secret (one I was only recently initiated into) in this Guide to Grading Exams. So can you guess if I went top-higher-grade or bottom-higher-grade? I think next time I should try the other more modern method mentioned at the bottom of this guide, don't you think?

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Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Whither Natural History Museums?

While we are all dumbstruck by the glitzy new creation museum, with its animatronic vegetarian dinosaurs in the garden of eden, the LA Times has a more sobering article on the decline of real natural history museums. You know, the kind where the fancy displays are actually just the public face of the far more important and significant research collections where actual science takes place.

The great American natural history museum could be headed for the vulnerable species list, alongside the polar bear and the redwood tree.

A national survey last year showed nature museums' annual bottom lines sinking chronically into the red by $300,000 on average, while art museums outperformed them by nearly half a million dollars. Some of the leading institutions have winnowed their staffs since the decade began, among them the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Science leaders worry that financial pressures and demands to boost attendance could prompt natural history museums to self-lobotomize, cutting away brain matter — the pure scientific research that's largely hidden from the public — to save the exhibits and educational programs that are the institutions' visible cash generators.
The kind of science where the goal is not to merely present a diorama of a dogmatic belief from a single ancient text, but to actually test hypotheses about evolutionary change.
Research is what makes natural history museums special: the mandate to venture into nature and bring back new finds and fresh questions, while maintaining millions of specimens.

Some scientists say that amid global warming and a rapid die-off of species, these collections encompassing the world's life forms, living and extinct, have become especially valuable for the clues they might hold.

How have creatures through the eons adapted or failed as their environments have changed? What's happening now? Biologists say those questions are vital in coping with today's challenges, and they can't be answered fully without museum collections.
Given the pace of global warming and the necessity to sharpen our abilities to predict how organisms may respond to rapid climate change, museum collections play a much more significant role - and one that even many academic biologist do not quite appreciate.
Universities aren't a strong alternative, scientists say, because many have given up their expensive-to-maintain natural history collections and focused their efforts elsewhere, including biomedical research, genetics and technology.
And I'm sorry to say that my own department here at Fresno State is part of this trend. Our small but potentially significant vertebrate collection and herbarium have some rare early specimens from the local Sierra Nevada mountains that could play a role in understanding some of the ongoing shifts in elevational range and phenologies in the region. But we too don't have the money to properly maintain these as active collections, and it is very difficult to justify hiring full-time curatorial staff (or even a faculty member with part-time curatorial duties) when these resources are not seen to be "productive" - i.e., generating dollars (research grants / donations).

Why is it that these natural history museums have been bleeding red ink lately even as art museums seem to have outperformed them? And let's not even bring up the nauseating millions of dollars that charlatans like Ken Ham rake in for their scam "museums". Is this just a coincidence or part of the collateral (or direct) damage from the republican war on science? How does one stop the death spiral of dollar cutbacks forcing research cutbacks which further reduce the inflow of new grants?
Joel Martin, the crustaceans curator [@ the L.A. Museum], who has been at the museum nearly 20 years, worries that with every cutback, the chances to win grants worsen. Ambitious research often depends on scientists being able to win highly competitive grants from outside sources.

"They're not likely to put a lot of money into an institution that itself is not funding it," he said.

In the three years before 2003, the L.A. museum landed $2.4 million from the National Science Foundation. In the three years since, L.A.'s share dropped to $1.6 million.
Perhaps the science museums also need to re-frame themselves to maintain support from a jaded public as the LA Times suggests.
Experts even worry that the very name "natural history museum" has a Victorian tinge that makes it harder to compete for audiences and funding.

"It harks back 300 years and doesn't resonate anymore," said Krishtalka, the University of Kansas museum director who reclassified his venue as a "biodiversity institute." The challenge and potential salvation, he believes, lie in making visitors and donors understand the connection between the fate of the Earth and all those seemingly inert specimens tucked into drawers or arrayed on back-room shelves in jars of alcohol.

"Our collections and knowledge help inform solutions to the problems the planet's facing," Krishtalka said. "Our time is now, and museums that reach out and grab that mission strongly will be the ones who survive."
Perhaps this is a short-term dip and one that will be reversed by the brand new California Academy of Sciences which will reopen to the public next year.
A completely rebuilt California Academy of Sciences is due to open next year in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. The museum, which will have a "living roof" of greenery designed by Renzo Piano, could be the canary in the coal mine. If a leading institution that has had a chance to reinvent itself with almost half a billion dollars can't score a hit, the future for all natural history museums could be a real dodo.

Driving the project, for which about $385 million in mostly private donations has been raised, was the realization that people had become bored with natural history museums, said curator John Patrick Kociolek, the former executive director who spearheaded the rebuilding. "Before you'd go, you could write down what you were going to see. The same stories were being told."

The new museum, he said, aims to stay fresh by uniting its public face with its hidden brain, clearly linking research to what visitors see by basing exhibits on the work of the museum's scientists.

For that to succeed, Kociolek said, there has to be a better exchange of ideas within the museum.

That's why Piano was asked to design hallways, office wings and other staff areas so that formerly "siloed" scientists would mingle routinely with colleagues in other departments.
Something to look forward to I suppose, even though the cynical realist in me has to wonder about that last part... are we en route to making museum relics out of scientists too by putting them on display, in laboratory dioramas mixed in with all the other exhibits?

[Crossposted to Reconciliation Ecology]

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Monday, June 4, 2007

Night at the Creation Museum

I found this video via Pharyngula:

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Student blog essays - an index

What happens when you ask a bunch of undergraduate students to contribute short pieces for a class blog on evolutionary topics (with the minor incentive of extra credit)? Turns out to be quite an educational experience, if you follow the links below! About half the students in the Spring '07 Evolution class here at Fresno State contributed a variety of essays on what they've been reading outside class, what they find fascinating and worth sharing in the world of evolutionary biology.

Having been unsure of what to expect, and frankly, being a bit nervous about this experiment, I am really glad I opened up the blog to students - what a way to get a small army to go out and find interesting tidbits from the frontiers of evolutionary biology! And gratifying to think that by the end of a seemingly long semester, one hasn't entirely killed their interest in the subject! (well, I might be flattering myself there - perhaps the interest remains despite my best efforts!) I think you will enjoy these diverse essays as much as I did - so if you know these students, pat them on the back (and you students can pat yourselves!).

So here's a list of all the essays contributed thus far:

  1. 28th Annual CCRS - a report
  2. Barn Swallows: Bringing sexy back
  3. Are chimps more evolved than humans?
  4. Gene links longevity and diet
  5. Language, Learning, Logic and the Chimp Genome
  6. To See Or Not To See: The Mexican Tetra’s Question
  7. Walking on eggshells... evolutionarily
  8. Corals more complex than you?
  9. From DNA analysis, clues to a single Australian migration
  10. Hollywood knows what's to come
  11. Why do ducks have big d..cks?
  12. Promiscuous females cause male zebras to have bigger testes and act all weird
  13. How the itch came about: Humans and Gorillas get intimately close
  14. Eat like a python = run like a horse? Or how digestive regulation has evolved
  15. Positive parasites?
  16. Sexual dimorphism and adaptive radiation
  17. Fascination of the cetacean cognition
I might have to try this again in future classes...

(PS: if you have submitted something but don't see it on this list, email me to make sure I haven't missed / lost it when my laptop hard drive crashed last week)

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Fascination of the Cetacean Cognition

Caribbean and Florida adventures offer several amazing encounters to interact with dolphins whose cognitive abilities excel the event. However, a new perspective on cetacean brains claimed that the cognition of cetaceans is merely a complexity associated with an increase in thermogenic neural cells as a result of climatic cooling in Eocene-Oligocene era. Nevertheless, countless laboratory exercises and research on communication, behavior, and social structures confirms that cognition is the principal factor of cetacean brain complexity, as reviewed in the latest issue of PLoS Biology.

Substantial evidence indicates cochlear and cortical modifications—attributed to the echolocation—within cetaceans’ brains around this Eocene-Oligocene transition. Contrary to the controversial report, cetacean body size became smaller during the Eocene-Oligocene transition. And with it a new dynamic altered the predation order of early cetaceans that may have contributed to behavioral changes. Independent cortical development occurred during the divergence of primates and cetaceans, yet convergent evolution is evident in many of the similar social and behavioral traits; especially limbic associations such as intuition, social awareness, and decision-making. An abundance of glial cells—crucial for axonal myelin— in the cetacean neocortex represents white matter that is exclusive to humans and cetaceans.

Many studies of bottle-nose dolphins in particular reveal cetacean understanding of self recognition, manipulation of mechanisms, and precision and memory of symbols and patterns. Cetacean dialect also has the capacity for advanced sound and recognition, discernment, and imitation as evidence for social learning in cognition. Bottle-nosed dolphins demonstrate an ability to communicate in conveying directional information (i.e. target exercises) and comprehending human gestures and pointing in interactions. Furthermore, cultural aspects such as ‘alliances within alliances’—a social behavior even rare to humans—are continually being researched within cetacean communities. Studies have proven evidence of meaningful relationships and cultural acquistions of direct teaching such as Killer Whale methods of cruising the incoming waves to catch prey on shorelines.

Cognitive similarities in social behavior with humans reveal that cetacean complexity is more related to function than body size. Incorporation of structured vocals and visual behaviors in communication indicate higher order cognition. Most notably, echolocation illustrates the remarkability of cetacean cognition; utilization of this cetacean feature is even being pursued in naval counter-terrorism efforts. So, if you get a chance to interact with these fascinating cetaceans, understand they may not be that far down the food chain from humans.

Reference:
Marino, L. (2007). Cetaceans Have Complex brains for Complex Cognition. PLOS Biology: Online Peer-reviewed journal. Volume 5: Issue 5 (e159)

--contributed by Jerome Lewis

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Sexual dimorphism and adaptive radiation


Caribbean lizards have strong sexual dimorphism (that's a female Anolis lineatopus on the left, and male on the right in the above image). Their degree of sexual dimorphism has led them to use resources in different habitats that limit competition between the opposite sexes of the same species. Scientists from Harvard University, the University of Hawaii, and Washington University in St. Louis, studied the role of sexual dimorphism in evolutionary diversification among anole species during their well-known adaptive radiation.

Anolis lizards originating in the West Indies have evolved independently in Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. Each species on each island has evolved traits that have allowed them to fit specific habitats through adaptive radiation. Past studies on adaptive radiation has focused primarily on males but it is important to consider both sexes because the study of sexual dimorphism helps explain the importance of male and female contribution to the population’s survival.

Marguerite Butler, Stanley Sawyer, & Jonathan Losos studied 15 different species of Anolis lizards and found that only 14 percent of niches were occupied by both sexes of the same species. 45 niches were covered by females and 36 percent of niches were occupied by males. By occupying different niches, males and females can decrease competition. For example, the sexes in hummingbirds have different lengths in beak size. This allows them to obtain nectar from different flowers which eliminates competition for food. By reducing competition between males and females of the same species, individuals increase their chances of surviving which leads to a higher fitness level of the whole population

--contributed by Jemimah Corpuz

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Positive Parasites?

Recent research has discovered that parasites can evolve fairly quickly to become helpful instead of harmful. Parasites have long been famed to be harmful to their hosts with some harmful enough to even kill their host. In the case of a parasite known as Wolbachia, present in nearly one fifth of all insects, harmful affects are typically in making females less fertile; but scientists have now discovered that Wolbachia can boost female/host fertility instead of lessen it in order to spread themselves in nature. Insects can only get Wolbachia from their mothers and additional effects from this bacteria include, turning males to females, causing infected females to reproduce without males and triggering vicious cycles of increasing female promiscuity and male sexual exhaustion. The presence of these parasites also often carries a toll on their victims, for instance, cutting down the number of eggs that females produce. Despite these effects, researchers have found that in span of just 20 years, this bacteria has evolved means of boosting offspring production to better spread itself in a laboratory setting by 10%. Initially a 20% decline in offspring production was observed.
But what about the idea of a positive parasite?

It is still unknown how Wolbachia lead to a boost in fertility, but experts suggest it is due to a nutritional benefit. In that rapid evolutionary span, Wolbachia have been concluded to be heading in the direction of being needed for host survival. This developing mutually beneficial relationship has been compared to the symbiotic relationship of mitochondria within cells. Wasps for example need Wolbachia to generate eggs in order to reproduce. This research sheds light on the symbiotic theory and shows that a dependant relationship between host and parasite can evolve in a very short time span.

--contributed by Stephen Rettig

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Eat like a python = run like a horse? Or how digestive regulation has evolved

A few weeks ago, Prof. Stephen Secor from the University of Alabama visited Fresno State to speak in the Department of Biology seminar series. Professor Secor lectured on his studies of the regulation of digestive systems as an evolutionary response. His study subjects were pythons who tend to fast for long periods of time between feedings. His finds show that the upregulation of the digestive system in short bursts is more energetically favorable to species that tend to fast for long periods of time. Upregulation is the process where a body system goes from a complete state of dormancy to fully functioning with a matter of hours and then goes dormant once the necessary function has been carried out. Examples of upregulatory animals are pythons, boas, and hibernating animals to an extent. This is atypical of other digestive systems that tend to idle between meals instead of complete shutdown. Signs of expatiated upregulation are increased nerve activity, increased blood flow to system, increased heat, and production of bodily fluids like stomach acid. His ideas were to prove that the quickened upregulation is an evolutionary response. The quickened upregulation save an animal more energy than constantly idling the body system. This reduces the necessary amount of food intake and reduces the need for the animal to hunt down prey. The lecture was very informative and interesting.

--contributed by Mark Garcia

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How the itch came about: Gorillas and humans get intimately close

While researching hominid evolution I came across this interesting article on the Discovery channel webpage by Jennifer Viegas, titled “Lice Passed from Gorillas to People,” that commented on a study done by David Reed and team, on the evolutionary history of anthropoid primate lice.

According to the study, humans have two genera of lice invading our bodies. These are the body and head lice, Pediculus and Pthirus. The latter, found only on pubic hair, was derived from a common ancestor with the louse found on gorilla. Since louse is very host specific it is possible to analyze the evolution of the host with that of the parasite. Therefore, the study done by Reed and team was in search of discovering the evolutionary history of the human lice. They did this by extracting DNA from both the the species found on gorilla and those found on humans. The study involved the use of PCR studies, alongside phylogenetic and cophylogenetic analyses.

Figure 1. Phylogenetic trees for primate lice and their vertebrate hosts. Trees are shown as cladograms with no branch length information, and are based on molecular and morphological data. Dashed lines between trees represent host-parasite associations. Humans are unique in being parasitized by two genera (Pediculus and Pthirus). Photo credits: J. W. Demastes, T. Choe, and V. Smith. (click on image for larger version).
So what happened? Well the studies showed that the human Pthirus diverged from the gorillas species a lot more recent than the actual divergence of human from gorillas. Humans and gorillas separated about 7 million years ago, while the Pthirus species has a common ancestor at about 3 million years ago. It is a well known fact that pubic lice are introduced by sexual contact - does this then imply that humans were having sex with gorillas 3 million years ago? As impossible as this may sound, it is a potential hypothesis, but there are others as well that can explain the relatively recent divergence of the two species. Such as host switching, duplication and extinction among the lice. Overall, this study is an example of coevolution among parasites and their host. How exactly the human host came to acquire pubic lice from gorillas is still an open question, and somewhat impossible situations cannot necessarily be ruled out completely.

--contributed by Patricia Torres

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Promiscuous females cause male zebras to have bigger testes and act all weird!

This article (from 1990) examined the differences in male zebra mating behavior and testicular size as influenced by polyandrous and monandrous zebra mares. The study focused on comparing the plains zebra (Equus burchelli) with Grevy’s zebra (E. grevyi) in northern Kenya. Plains zebras reside in herds consisting of several females and a single stallion. Females are considered monandrous as they will stay and mate with the same male for 9 – 26 months. This is the same type of mating behavior seen in wild horse populations. Grevy’s zebra females are generally polyandrous and typically travel in small groups without a male. These groups of females may travel through the territories of up to four different stallions each day. This polyandrous behavior is also seen in female asses (E. asinus) in wild populations. When mating, the polyandrous mares will stay with the stallion for only 1 – 48 hours. After giving birth, a normally polyandrous mare may become monandrous and stay with a male for 3 – 59 days. This longer association with the male provides that mare and her newborn with protection and allows the stallion a chance to mate with the mare.

The promiscuous mating behaviors of female Grevy’s zebras have caused the males to evolve in ways that would help to improve their reproductive success. Grevy’s zebra stallions that are mating with polyandrous females will exhibit more mating behaviors such as calling and mounting and will mate with the female more frequently than stallions with monandrous females. Polyandrous mares also exhibit a shorter estrous than monandrous mares, thus decreasing the amount of time that she will be receptive to the stallion and requiring him to mate often to increase chances of conception. The frequent mating requires greater stores of sperm and has led to the evolution of larger testes in the Grevy’s zebra. Larger testicular size enables the stallion to breed more frequently and also allows him to produce greater volumes of sperm to help improve his reproductive success.

--contributed by Abigail Hall

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Why do ducks have big d..ks?

A post-doctoral researcher at Yale University, Dr. Brennan, has recently made some interesting findings in her studies on duck genitalia. The observations have both answered and raised questions about the co-evolution of waterfowl species, particularly, ducks.

The findings of Dr. Brennan’s study, published in this month’s journal, PLoS One, give us a better understanding of not just the mating practices of ducks, but also the physiological aspect and how it relates to the co-evolution of sexes in these species. For example, of 16 species of ducks and geese caught, Dr. Brennan found that the size of the male phallus was matched to fit the size of the female oviduct. As Dr. Brennan put it “When you dissected one of the birds, it was really easy to predict what the other sex was going to look like.”

What was fresh in this area of study is that Dr. Brennan examined the female anatomy of waterfowl, an area that has been overlooked. Through the study of the female genitalia, Dr. Brennan was able to observe that not only did the female genitalia range in size and shape, as their counterpart male, but that females are capable of expelling male sperm, perhaps as a defense when they are forced to mate, as is the case often. This argument comes from “studies on some species that have found that forced matings make up about a third of all matings. Yet only 3 percent of the offspring are the result of forced matings. ‘To me, it means these females are successful with this strategy,’” said Dr. Brennan.

This article is very interesting and sheds light on the co-evolution of waterfowl species. The findings from the proceeding study also raises questions such as, “Why does the male phallus return and disappear every year?” This is a great read for any ornithologist!

--contributed by Danny Tovar

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

New digs for the class blog

Yes, the blog lives, at least until I have shared all the last minute student submissions so you can all enjoy reading them during / after finals week!

So why did I move here? Well, basically, blame Apple! Yes, the makers of my beloved laptop (oh awright... go ahead and snicker, all those of you who were laughing at me as I fumbled with the ugly Dell laptop for my last lecture) have so far overlooked a rather serious flaw in their iWeb application, which I was using to create the lovely old class blog! So when the hard drive crashed last week, one of the files that got corrupted was the iWeb file for the class blog. And wouldn't you know it - this was just when I had made a number of recent updates but had not backed up the disk in some weeks! Well, having recovered most of the other data over the weekend, and cursed and shaken my fists at Apple for not allowing me to easily update the blog without having to recreate most of the old posts, I finally turned to Google's Blogger, which has proved more reliable and robust for my other class blog.

So here we are... and I'm posting the remaining student submissions in this place now. I will also post a running index of all student articles, from both the old and new locations so they are all available through one place. If you've sent me something, but don't see it pop up here, do let me know as I may have lost your email amid all this shuffling around!

Enjoy reading!

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Hollywood knows what’s to come

Have you ever finished watching a movie and have an eerily prophetic feeling? When I watched The Planet of The Apes a few years ago, I felt just that way. And it has bothered me ever since. Could Hollywood really know what will happen in the future? I was doubtful at first, but in light of recent scientific discoveries I think that Planet of The Apes might be closer to the truth than anyone thought.

As Jianzhi Zhang from the University of Michigan has recently shown, chimp DNA is actually more evolved than human DNA. This should come as no surprise as we have been under their radar for some time. The chimps have been making careful and detailed observations of us. Obviously, for some sinister future use. They’re a kind of Chimp Mafia, an ape C.I.A. if you will. You doubt this? The chimp at the zoo does not engage in autoerotic activities or, hurl fistfuls of excrement because he is reminiscing of his past days in the wild. No, they are testing our vulnerabilities to various types of warfare. Perhaps they hypothesize that watching a monkey masturbate will really screw with our heads. But I know that all the fistfuls of crap aimed at the faces of innocent children eating those bricks of pink popcorn, is a study of monkey on man biological warfare.

It gets worse, they are well aware of global warming and that the proverbal shit has hit the fan. Recent satellite pictures of Monkey Militia camps deep in the jungle have shown a rush to create and amass arms. The crafty nature of these brutes has been documented by two separate researchers. Jill Preutz and Paco Bertolani, published in Current Biology (17:1-6) “Savanna chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes verus, hunt with tools”. These researchers have documented what U.S. spy satellites have recently suspected, the chimps are manufacturing weapons of human destruction. If something is not done to curb global warming soon, we can look forward to a very hairy future, with colorful butts.



--Submitted by Dr. Zaius

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From DNA Analysis, Clues To a Single Australian Migration

Examination of old and new samples of Aborigine DNA show that Aborigines and the people of Papua-New Guinea are descended from a single founding population. The two islands were reached some 50,000 years ago by a group of the ancestral people.

Genetic samples show that all Australian Aborigines are descended from the founding population. It means that there have been no further immigrants who reached Australia in numbers large enough to leave a genetic trace until today. Bone structure of the oldest human remains from Australia, 45,000 years ago, was gracile whereas fossils from 20,000 years ago are robust. Because the genetic lineage is shared by all Australian Aborigine indicates, the difference of bone structure would have come from process like adaptation to climatic change. The findings also suggest that the oldest inhabitants of New Guinea would have changed under the evolutionary forces of selection and genetic drift.

In addition, counting mutations in DNA indicate that the emigrants’ journey from India to the continent that included New Guinea and Australia would have taken less than 5,200 years.

Reference
Wade, Nicholas. DNA Analysis, Clues To a Single Australian Migration. The New York Times Tuesday, May 8, 2007.

-- Submitted by Hiroko Kubota

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Corals - More complex than you?

I found this article to be quite a twist to what common evolution is all about. It gives an insight on genes that have supposedly been evolved over a long period of time, but have actually been there the entire duration. According to the current studies, corals have genes that are much more complex than anyone expected.

A recent study by the Coral Genomics group led by David Miller at James Cook University has discovered numerous genes found in corals that are shared with vertebrates. This comes to no surprise because corals are near the roots of trees for all living animals. Corals are hypothesized to have around 25,000 genes based on the current gene sequencing. Humans only contain around 20,000-23,000. Genome size cannot depict how complex an organism is, which is illustrated perfectly here. Corals appear to be very simple animals with no complex processes or organs. The part that I found to be interesting was that 10-12% of known coral genes are unique shared with vertebrates, which code for nerves, vision, DNA imprinting, stress responses and key parts of the immune system. Due to certain genes being ‘turned off’, only those ‘turned on’ or functional will code for proteins. Even though corals possess these genes, they are not completely functional because they are spliced out during development. Corals share these same genes with humans but humans have a much more ‘advanced’ immune system. Why is it that corals possess the genes to have more advanced systems (vision, immune) and not form them? Have humans truly evolved these genes by coincidence, or have they always been there as dormant (off) genes in direct human ancestors?

Scientists are now suspecting that corals have evolved these genes because of pandemic diseases they are currently facing, such as “white plague, white bands, or white pox”. The corals previously contained these genes but natural selection caused them to begin functioning. The genes are not all functioning completely, but there is evidence that natural selection has selected against the corals whose genes are inactive.

Animals that have very fast generation times tend to shed genes much faster than other animals, such as flies or insects. Corals have generation times which are much slower (around 5 years), making scientists believe that corals can be seen as a ‘museum’ of genes for animals. There is currently no project to sequence coral genome. Knowing what other genes could be found in corals may alter numerous previous beliefs of evolution and ancestry. Corals could possibly contain numerous other genes shared with humans, coding for development of much more complex systems.

-- submitted by Lucas Anderson.

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