Lo and behold: the full video of the NOVA documentary is available for your viewing pleasure online - enjoy! Its a great way to start 2010, the International Year of Biodiversity.
Thursday, December 31, 2009
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
My opinion overall: the first half hour was boring to me — it was an extremely basic primer in old-school Darwinian biology. The middle hour was of more interest, and did get into real evolutionary developmental biology, and showed off some of the best examples of work in the field. This was the bit I'd find most useful in my classes; that first half-hour was too basic for most freshman biology majors.
I wasn't too keen on the last bit where it got very human-centric, but I can see where the examples they talked about would provoke viewer interest. I just wish it were possible for the medium to push a little deeper into the topics than they did.
Carroll, Shubin, and Tabin were good. Make them TV stars!
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Just getting ready to watch this 2-hr documentary on PBS NOVA tonight. But in looking for this clip on YouTube, I found a British series titled "What Darwin didn't know" - sounds intriguing, and I may share it here later.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
Enjoy your break with some good science readings from the blogosphere in the latest Scientia Pro Publica (issue #18) blog carnival. I posted it yesterday on Reconciliation Ecology, so pop on over there if you haven't seen it already!
And if you have come across any good blog writing on evolution, or written something yourself, consider submitting it to the upcoming Carnival of Evolution, #19 to be hosted at Observations of a Nerd.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
This ought to be worth taping!
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Here's a slidecast of Dr. Eugenie Scott's talk at Fresno State last week, which includes her entire powerpoint presentation along with audio I was able to record during her talk with my iPhone.
This is also my first attempt at embedding a slideshare presentation in a blog post, so if you notice any glitches, please let me know! I also have a podcast version (m4a/quicktime) of this talk which I will post here shortly, and Scott Hatfield has posted video on YouTube as I've noted in an earlier post. I hope to do more of these slide/podcastsas we continue our series of evolutionary biology lectures on campus.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
What an overwhelming response we had at Eugenie Scott's wonderful lecture last week on "Why the fuss about Darwin and Evolution?"! Thank you, Genie, for such a great talk, for inspiring and recharging those of us in the thick of the evolution/creationism culture war in the Central Valley, for showing us how to address these issues in a graceful, polite, and inclusive manner. And thank you, all of you who came to campus that evening and overflowed the Satellite Student Union. For those that couldn't come that evening, you can still enjoy the talk, in parts via videos posted on Scott Hatfield's blog, and also a full-length podcast of the slides with audio that I'm working on (as soon as classes are out of the way this week!). More on that soon.
For now I want to share an essay written by one of my students who attended the talk, identifies himself as a Christian, and has, starting from a religious background that made him suspicious of the E-word, come around to accept the evidence for evolution, while retaining his faith. I thank Eric York for allowing me to share his synopsis of and reflections on Genie's talk here. Having a standing-room audience is one thing - and a great thing for sure - but a personal testimony from a student who has made some real progress in their thinking because of what we teach, that is the best kind of response we teachers can hope for. Note that I am posting his essay as is, although I have (and you can guess where) some quibbles with a couple of the things he says in his synopsis. You should also read Scott's summary of the talk, which has a bit more on the core-fringe model of knowledge. If you attended the talk, feel free to share your reaction in the comments section below. Here's Eric (continued below the fold):
“Why all the fuss about Evolution?” –Eugenie C. Scott
Eugenie Scott provided a lecture outlining the basics of evolution, followed by a detailed synopsis of the evolution vs. creationism debate. She started off the debate by outlining the different facets of evolution, and the various sciences it is deeply entangled with. These included astronomy, biology, geology, and anthropology, which are each considered evolutionary sciences. The main distinction is that evolution doesn’t necessarily address the origins of life; rather it attempts to explain how organisms have gotten to their present state, via descent with modification.
One of the complaints about evolution is that humans don’t like the idea of us being “descended” from monkeys. However, Scott cleared this up by stating that we aren’t descended from monkeys or apes. She compared this to a family tree. I descended from my dad, and my dad descended from my grandpa. My grandpa also had another son, who in turn had a son, who is consequently my cousin. I am not descended from my cousin, but we do share a recent common ancestor. This parallels the concept of descent with modification.
Scott brought up a book called, “A Consumer’s Guide to Pseudoscience.” This claims that the core ideas of science that are well tested, such as gravity and orbit, are at the center. Around the core ideas are the frontier portions, which include the current experiments and hypotheses that sciences are actively testing. Finally, surrounding the frontier is the fringe. This discusses the why and philosophical aspects of science, and includes ideas such as natural selection and perpetual motion.
Scott spent a significant portion of the time discussing the debate between creationism and evolution. She suggested that instead of looking at both as a dichotomy in which you have to choose one over the other, look at them as a continuum. This continuum starts with conservative Christians that take the Bible literally. This includes those people who, as Scott stated, base their belief on the written Word that simultaneously makes the statement that the earth is flat. This argument is based on Scripture that pictures the earth as circular. Arguments against this claim are that the old Hebrew language didn’t have an adequate term for the word spherical, or that by saying the earth was circular was merely describing its general properties and not its absolute shape. This is only one of the many arguments between evolutionists and the conservative Christians who take the Bible literally.
From the literal interpretations of the Bible comes a transition into young earth creationists, who believe the Earth is only 10,000 years old. They believe that the Earth has only recently been created, and accept that if evolution does occur, it must act much more rapidly than currently accepted. Next are the old earth creationists that believe in creationism, but accept an older earth with the possibility of evolution. This is based on the interpretation of Genesis that the seven days of creation aren’t actually 24 hour days. This is based on the Scripture that says, “To the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like a day.” By this reasoning, the seven days of creation could in fact imply thousands, millions, or even billions of years. Under this claim, evolution could be a feasible method that a creator used to derive the extant organisms that are alive today. This is followed by materialists, who don’t believe in creationism, and are skeptical of evolution. They are basically an in between category and don’t go one way or the other. Finally are the fundamental evolutionists. They are the ones that explicitly believe in evolution and the direct descent with modification.
Altogether I felt this was a very interesting and enlightening discussion. I personally am a Christian and take the Bible as inspired by God, which leaves several aspects up to interpretation. However, I am also taking evolution with Dr. Crosbie, and through this have learned the mechanisms, consequences, and impacts of evolution. Consequently I have come to believe that evolution via natural selection and descent with modification is in fact responsible for how organisms have changed over time to get to their present state. Although my belief is in contradiction to most views held by Christians, I personally think that science and creationism can in fact go hand in hand, and don’t have to be mutually exclusive of one another. As mentioned, I have slowly reached this conclusion by taking my evolution class, along with analyzing past and present research. I felt that it was appropriate to include as part of my analysis for this seminar the influence that Scott had on confirming my ideals, and expounding upon the inclusiveness in my own thinking of creationism and evolution.
Saturday, November 28, 2009
I am really excited to invite you to an evening with Dr. Eugenie Scott on the Fresno State campus next Wednesday, Dec 2, 2009! An evolutionary biologist by trade, Dr. Scott is the Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, and as such, has been at the forefront of the culture war around the teaching of evolution in the US for over a quarter century. Along the way she has testified on behalf of evolution and science at numerous venues, most famously at the Dover trial a couple of years ago, and has authored several valuable books on the subject, including Evolution vs. Creationism and Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools (with Glenn Branch). I am therefore thrilled that she accepted my invitation to come down into the valley to talk to us because here, as you may know, we happen to be in something of a hotbed for that culture war as well, although not nearly as hot as some other parts of the country (no attempts to mess with public school science curricula at least).
Dr. Scott will give a public lecture on "Why the fuss about Darwin and Evolution" at the campus' Satellite Student Union (maps) at 7:30 PM on Dec 2, 2009, as part of a new Evolutionary Biology lecture series hosted by the campus Consortium for Evolutionary Studies (see poster below for the various sponsors of this particular talk). We are bracing for a good turnout since this will be one of the most prominent speakers to come here and speak on behalf of teaching evolution and science in the classrooms - and we plan to bring some more over the coming year.
I know we got off to a bit of a late start in the Darwin Bicentennial celebrations this year, but we hope to keep the momentum going into the future as we try to light a few more candles in the dark in this lovely valley.
Click below the fold for the poster announcing this lecture - feel free to download and share it as widely as you like! And if you are on Facebook, check out the event page to rsvp and invite others, and become a fan of the Biology Department page while you are at it. I hope you will join us for this talk next week.
Why the fuss about Darwin and Evolution? - a lecture by Eugenie Scott at Fresno State
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Many campuses across the US are celebrating tomorrow, Oct 21, 2009 as Campus Sustainability Day. There is even a webcast you can join in via the Society for College and University Planning. If you prefer more direct human contact, and happen to be in the Fresno State vicinity tomorrow, why not check out our campus' First Annual Sustainability Day event - see full announcement below the fold. You might even to win a cool bicycle! I'm glad our campus is finally joining this event in its 7th year - better late than never, eh?
FRESNO STATE'S 1st ANNUAL
CAMPUS SUSTAINABILITY DAY
WEDNESDAY OCTOBER 21, 2009
10:00 A.M. TO 2:00 P.M.
Don't forget to come out this Wednesday and learn about how your fellow Bulldogs are "Going Green". Various departments and student groups from the university, as well as businesses, organizations and programs in the surrounding communities of Fresno and Clovis will be there. Featured participants include:
- Fresno State Recycling Club
- City of Fresno Department of Waste & Recycling
- The Green Issue (Fresno State)
- Department of Risk Management & Sustainability (Fresno State)
- Center of Irrigation Technology
- Fresno State Organic Farm
- Fresno Metropolitan Flood Control District
- Fresno Council of Governments
- Bulldog Pantry
- GRID Alternatives
- ...and more!
There will be a raffle for a brand new bike available to those who attend!
In the evening, Director of the Department of Pesticide Regulation and Fresno State Alum Mary-Ann Warmerdam will be guest lecturing at Alice Peters Auditorium at 7:00 p.m. A reception will be held at 6:00 p.m. in the Alice Peters lobby. Enjoy the free food made from produce provided by the Fresno State Farm Market. The lecture is free of charge and open to all students, faculty, and members of the general public! Please encourage your students and colleagues to attend. A sign-up sheet will be at the lecture for any students needing to show proof of attendance!
Risk Management & Sustainability
California State University Fresno
Fresno State: Powering the New California
-- Please save a tree: Don't print this message --
Does this look exciting, or what? That trailer sure sucked me in much more energetically than either of the trailers for Creation or Darwin's Darkest Hour. Hopefully the whole thing delivers on what the trailer promises. Too bad, therefore, not to see any US air dates at the end there, although our neighbors to the north will get to see it, having helped produce it. I hope it does get here eventually. PBS, are you paying attention?
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Lovely macro cinematography on this one, really shows off the brilliant spider. As the author notes, this could be a male member of Phidippus apacheanus or Phidippus cardinalis.
Saturday, October 17, 2009
I'm often looking for videos on the web to enhance my lectures (or merely to jolt students out of the slumber my soothing voice may put them into from time to time), especially when teaching about animal behavior. Its always more impressive to see an animal carry out some astonishingly bizarre behavior than to read about it or have it be described in class by someone who may never have seen the behavior either! Places like Youtube are therefore quite the boon for the modern professor of ethology, and a casual perusal of this blog will show you how much I fall into that happy camp. The exciting thing is that lately, competition has been heating up among the online video portals, bringing us access to all kinds of video treasures. I stumbled upon one such treasure today when I discovered that youtube now has, in its growing Nature channel, Sir David Attenborough's entire series on The Life of Birds!
Since we have been exploring acoustic signals in my Animal Communication class in recent weeks, with birds (of course) starring as prime examples, this is a perfect time to share this episode where one of humanity's most eloquent communicators takes us on a wonderful exploration of some of nature's most Eloquent Communicators:
Students in my lab had better take note - this is how things work in the real world of academic research:
[via PHD Comics],
Thursday, October 15, 2009
As some of you may know, today, Oct 15, 2009, is Blog Action Day - a global effort to get the blogsphere to act collectively to highlight a single issue. This year's topic is Climate Change, and as of this writing, 8170 blogs are participating worldwide. Here's a short video about it from the site:
Instead of inflicting my own rather lengthy contribution upon you readers here, I invite interested readers to visit my main blog, Reconciliation Ecology, where I have just posted some thoughts on climate change.
Friday, October 9, 2009
Must the struggle for existence necessarily be a bleak experience? Can we not exult in the wonders produced by natural selection without despairing over "nature red in tooth and claw"? Why do Darwin's own words about the "grandeur in this view of life" invoke a contrary view in so many, that this evolutionary view of life must necessarily lead to nihilism and despair?
I've wondered about this for some time now, especially since the Darwin Day discussion panel we hosted on our campus last spring, when the philosopher on the panel brought up the not uncommon view that Darwin somehow displaced morality and left us morally and ethically adrift! And how many in the audience agreed, with even evolutionists on the panel nodding sadly to acknowledge the loss of moral innocence engendered by Darwin. (And I'm apprehensive about the new Darwin biopic "Creation" for it too may be too bleak.)
These questions disturb me again now since last night's performance of "The Origin Cycle " a musical performance of eight selections from "On the Origin of Species" at Stanford University. Let me state first off that I am no music critic (even my iPod listening tends towards spoken word podcasts/books rather than music), and that this particular genre of music is rather outside my normal listening sphere (and don't even ask me what this genre is!). So consider this more a response to the emotions evoked in me by the music, and my subsequent intellectual response to those emotions. I found the concert and performances quite wonderfully evocative - even though our 9-yr-old Darwin fan fell asleep after failing to track the words being sung by the soprano Jane Sheldon; she was still impressed enough to want to meet the musicians and get their autographs on the program! As the friend who invited us to the concert remarked, the compositions were quite complex musically - and appropriately so, I thought, given the subject. So the music did capture the chosen text quite well (I'll share the passages featured later tonight when we return to Fresno), but - and I can't quite put the finger on the role of any particular element in this - I felt the general emotional tone was on the darker side, with melancholy washing over me far more than joy. No wonder then, that the one upbeat composition in the middle, set to a passage about the "Tree of Life" really lifted me up, but all too briefly, before the mood became sombre again. I was hoping for more uplift towards the end, with the final two pieces revolving around Darwin's immortal words about the "Entangled Bank" and the grandeur in this view of life (Floreana) - but those compositions were darker too. The conductor, Jeffrey Means, later told me that "Tree of Life" was the ensemble's favorite too - but I didn't get the chance to ask him about the darkness of the other pieces. So I am left with the sense that the composers of these creative pieces too share a darker view of the meaning of Darwin's work even as they celebrate it. I, for one, would prefer more joy, and more thrill at the sheer intellectual adventure of Darwin, as seen in this week's Nova special on "Darwin's Darkest Hour", which was less dark than the title suggested - but perhaps I should leave that review for a separate post.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
via Dr. Free-Ride comes word of a special Darwinian treat for folks in the San Francisco Bay area: a performance of The Origin Cycle - eight selections from Darwin's On the Origin of Species set to music! The Firebird Ensemble will perform What's more, its a free concert, although you might want to reserve seats in advance. Here's a brief description of the show:
Charles Darwin's Origin of Species is not only one of the most important scientific works of all time, but one of the most beautifully written. In The Origin Cycle, eight contemporary composers set fragments of Darwin's great book to music, for performance by solo soprano and chamber ensemble.
The passages chosen encompass the entire work, capturing the many facets of a Darwinian view of nature, and summarizing what Darwin called the "one long argument" contained in the Origin. They include his most famous and enduring images – the growing "tree of life" connecting all species, the vision of nature as an surface into which wedges are unceasingly struck, and the book's final invocation of "grandeur in this view of life."
The works were commissioned by Jane Sheldon and Peter Godfrey-Smith and funded by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.
Although not quite in the Bay area, we are just about within driving range (well, a 3-4 hr drive) to be sorely tempted by this. A friend who lives in the vicinity has already invited us to come for the show and stay over - and our 4th grader Darwinista daughter is sorely tempted to accept that invitation, even if it means playing hooky from school the next day! So it looks like we might be heading that way...
(and as a bonus, I might get to meet Dr. Free-Ride too!)
I'm looking forward to watching this on our local public television channel tonight - starting in another half hour here: "Darwin's Darkest Hour" a 2-hour dramatization of "the delay" in publishing his revolutionary theory, which I mentioned last week. Check it out - although this reminder may be too late for those of you living east of California. But don't worry if you miss the broadcast, for you can still watch it online, on the PBS website, and soon on their YouTube channel! Meanwhile, here's another preview:
Monday, October 5, 2009
We resume the Central Valley Café Scientifique tonight after a prolonged summer hiatus - and at a new venue too! My colleague Dr. Alejandro Calderón-Urrea will start the new season with a talk about GMOs and suicidal worms! You know where to find the details, don't you? The Café's website, of course! And you've always had our Google Group to get email updates. But now there are a couple of new ways for you to keep up with the Café: join us on our new Facebook page, and follow us on twitter too! And soon, if we manage to master the technology, we may start podcasting the talks afterwards! So watch this space (and all the above spaces too) for that development.
Most importantly, of course, I hope to see you in person tonight!
This past week has been a remarkable, mixed, week for the environment in the San Joaquin valley! First the good news: water began to flow through the San Joaquin river's heavily impacted (dammed / modified / channeled / dredged / damaged) course as part of a major restoration effort decades in the making, when federal authorities released water from Friant Dam, just above Fresno. The Fresno Bee has been covering the story really well these past few days, with a special feature, and you can jump into the stream with this report from Friday:
FRESNO, Calif. -- When Darrell Imperatrice was a boy, California's San Joaquin River teemed with so many king salmon his father could catch 40-pound fish using only a pitchfork.
Then the salmon vanished from the icy river for nearly 60 years, after a colossal federal dam built to nurture the croplands below dried up their habitat.
Now, as federal officials try to bring the fish back through a sweeping restoration program of the state's second-largest river - opening the valves for the first full day on Friday - those who know it best are debating its value and its virtue.
"There were so many salmon back then, you could fish any way you wanted, even dynamite. But when they built that dam, thousands of fish lay dead on the banks," said Imperatrice, who at age 82 still treasures his father's fishing gear. "There's no real restoration that will bring back the river I knew."
Yes, we are unlikely to ever really bring back the river from before agriculture took over this valley. But we sure can try, and this week we took a major step forward on that long arduous journey towards bringing the old salmon runs back to this damaged/heavily used river. Its an ambitious project that has (supposedly) pitted environmentalists against farmers (at least in the popular caricature, although there are farmers who are environmentalists too!) in many a legal and legislative battle over several decades - and that was before the water started flowing again! Let's see how far we can take this.
Which brings us to the week's bad news: even as the water started flowing down the river, a judge in Fresno reminded us that the battle to restore the river is far from over, when he decided that the government hadn't done enough to justify diverting water away from farmland for the sake of the endangered Delta Smelt - a tiny fish from the San Joaquin Delta that has become a symbol of the fight between "environmentalists" vs. "farmers". In hearing an appeal from some farmers against govt. rules favoring the Smelt under the Endangered Species Act, the judge didn't really raise any serious objections to the fish being listed under the ESA in the first place. Rather, he objects, oddly enough, to a lack of an environmental impact study... on humans!! You read that right - the judge wants the federal govt. to present a study of the environmental impact of saving the Delta Smelt on humans!! Talk about turning the ESA on its head! He apparently thinks that the current rules issued by the govt for water management in the delta are already causing the human environment to deteriorate: our air is fouled by dust from farms that haven't received water in the west valley, and land itself is sinking in some places due to increased groundwater pumping! As if over-irrigating and farming in arid landscapes, and careless use of underground aquifers, don't have anything to do with those environmental impacts! Those are not problems in this Cadillac Desert - but attempts to restore the natural environment for some endangered native species is what we have to worry about, because, darn it, it raises dust into our skies, and forces us to suck so much water from underground that our lands start sinking!!
And you wonder why us environmentalists always have that sinking feeling...
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
What fun! The Colbert Report will have Richard Dawkins on tonight, followed tomorrow by Francis Collins, the new director of the NIH! I wonder if he might ask Dawkins some of these questions? Maybe not, although Colbert, despite his avowed Catholicism and gut-centric persona, seems much more rational, skeptical, and pro-science than Bill Maher. He certainly showcases more scientists on the Report than any other late-night talk show! For examples, look no further than Matt Tobey's post on the Comedy Central Blog last week featuring this collection of Colbert's Most Intelligently Designed Creationism Moments:
Did humans evolve from monkeys over the course of hundreds of millennia or were we created in the Garden of Eden 6000 years ago? It's hard for me to say, to be honest. On the one hand, like Eve, I find apples very tempting, especially when they're in fried pies. On the other hand, I really enjoy flinging my poop. Hopefully these creationism-themed Colbert Report clips can help me make up my mind.
Check out all the videos there - but let me share here, below the fold, both Collins' and Dawkins' previous appearance on the show:
|The Colbert Report||Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
Let's see how he fares on his return visit on thursday, now that he has his own upgrade to head the NIH!
And here's Dawkins hawking his previous book on the Colbert Report three years ago:
|The Colbert Report||Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
Thursday, September 24, 2009
As the Darwin Bicentennial year winds down and we approach the Sesquicentennial anniversary of the publication of "On the Origin of Species" on Nov 21, we will get two promising televisual/cinematic treatments of the torment Darwin underwent while sitting on the horns of the dilemma of whether or not to share his theory with the world! The recent drama about whether the movie Creation was going to be distributed at all in the US has now been settled as we get word today that Newmarket, a small Indie company (whose previous hit, intriguingly, was "The Passion of the Christ"!!) has picked up the US rights for the film and plans a year-end release! Hooray - although some of us are apprehensive about how "even-handed" the film will be in trying to "balance" between religion and science! The National Center for Science Education's executive director Eugenie Scott (who has just accepted my invitation to speak at Fresno State this fall as well - but more on that soon!) liked the film, describing it in her early review as "a thoughtful, well-made film that will change many views of Darwin held by the public — for the good."
Monday, September 21, 2009
The 12th edition of the science themed blog carnival Scientia Pro Publica is out for your reading pleasure at Lab Rat. Enjoy this relatively brief issue - especially since it also features one of my recent blog posts - thanks Lab Rat!
(Tip'o'Hat: Daven Presgraves via whyevolutionistrue)
Sunday, September 20, 2009
One trait that shows interesting evolutionary trends is the size of animals. Body size plays a significant role in the most important interactions between animals: competition (for resources or mates) and predation (for both predator and prey). Body size is also, of course, significant for a variety of physiological reasons. It's no surprise, therefore, that biologists spend a lot of time thinking about body size, and have discovered some intriguing patterns. For instance the so-called island rule in biogeography includes both insular gigantism (relatives of smaller-bodied mainland species tend to be larger in island populations) and insular dwarfism (relatives of larger-bodied mainland species tend to be smaller on islands!) - and both of these patterns are well supported empirically. We also have apparent body size trends in some lineages where successive descendants keep getting bigger and bigger until they reach some apparent limit and go extinct. This might happen because of predator-prey arms races, competition, or runaway sexual selection where female preference drives the exaggeration of a trait (e.g., antlers) in turn selecting for larger body size to support that exaggerated trait.
Our understanding of how large some species can get and still function well is somewhat limited by the fact that many of the largest species ever to have evolved have gone extinct, leaving us to speculate whether their very size led to their extinction. Were the giant Haast's Eagles of New Zealand reduced to scavenging because they evolved too rapidly to become too big to be able to hunt? On the other hand, did Tyrannosaurus rex not become a good predator until it attained a sufficiently large body size? Our hypotheses about body size can thus go in different directions depending upon taxon and ecological circumstances. After all, we can only infer so much from reconstructing the anatomy of some of these giant beasts from their fossilized skeletal remains - but we are getting better at studying the fossils and visualizing their functions, by adapting technologies such as CAT (computed axial tomography) scans. This week some of the media picked up two papers reporting interesting findings about the two taxa mentioned above. The AP and several websites who picked it up from there got all excited about how the Haast's Eagle may have been the fearsome aerial predator of Maori legend as it might have hunted humans - especially (oh the horror) children! The original paper by Scofield and Ashwell while generating that sensational headline, is actually more interesting because of its approach and analysis of skeletal material, and in suggesting greater flexibility in the allometry of body size evolution. The authors used CAT scans to reconstruct and analyze the brain structure of the eagle to show that while the body of this species increased rapidly in size upon their arrival in New Zealand - presumably because of the lack of mammalian predators and the presence of a giant prey, the Moa - their brains did not increase in proportion! They use allometric analysis to show that these birds have much smaller brains for their body size compared to other Falconiformes, and this large size seems to have evolved rapidly: Haast's Eagle became 10-times the size of its putative ancestral lineage within a short 1.8 million years! That's what going after Moas, as seen in the above painting, meant for the evolution of this bird!! But wait, weren't these birds too big to hunt actively, instead scavenging off Moa carcasses like Condors and other large vultures?
The large morphological size of Haast’s eagle has led to competing hypotheses concerning its life style and behavior. Here we analyse neuroanatomical indicators to address questions concerning the behavior of Haast’s eagle: (1) was it an active predator or merely a scavenger of carcasses; (2) was it most likely to inhabit forest or open places; and (3) did its large body weight allow strong active flight?
We predict that if this eagle had vulturine habits it would show a combination of all, or some of, the following: (1) somatic evidence that it made significant use of olfaction; (2) adaptations indicative of an ability to undertake sustained gliding flight; (3) large eyes adapted to locate prey from considerable distances; and (4) a lack of evidence for the ability to attack and kill prey with its legs and talons. Alternately, if these features were not found to be present, we would suggest that Haast’s eagle was most likely an active hunter.
To do this, they look not just at the whole brain, but specific relevant regions of the brain where the size can be inferred from their scans, as well the anatomy of the eye and the optic nerve. They found that the olfactory system of the Haast eagle's brain was proportionally similar to smaller eagles from the Accipitridae and much smaller than in vultures. So these birds probably did not rely so much on smell to find food! Further, the visual system also remained similar to the Eagles, not apparently gaining any further acuity like we find in the vultures.
We suggest this disproportionate growth was only possible in the unique New Zealand environment where Harpagornis was not threatened by mammalian predation or competitors and was able to develop specific adaptations to predating on a particular prey, the moa, by evolving a bigger head and more robust talons. Also we prefer this interpretation rather than the alternative of Harpagornis evolving from a similar sized ancestor and in doing so undertaking a reduction in endocranial capacity, and degradation of the optic and olfactory lobes.
They then examined flight morphology to conclude that here the bird was more like vultures in being better adapted to soaring (despite its relatively short wings) than the fine control exhibited by its forest dwelling cousins. It may have dwelt more in open grassland habitats where it could swoop down upon its prey from cliffside perches. And here they draw upon corroborative evidence from Maori legend - for this fearsome beast went extinct from NZ skies only about 500 years ago!
Although no European scientist ever observed Haast’s eagle hunting, Maori oral tradition provides some evidence to support our behavioral reconstruction. One description given to Sir George Grey in 1872 (Grey, 1873, pg 435) states: “This bird, the Hokioi, was seen by our ancestors. We (of the present day) have not seen it. That bird has disappeared now-a-days. The statement of our ancestor was that it was a powerful bird, a very powerful bird. It was a very large hawk. Its resting place was on the top of the mountains; it did not rest on the plains. On the days in which it was on the wing our ancestors saw it; it was not seen every day as its abiding place was in the mountains. Its colour was red and black and white. It was a bird of (black) feathers, tinged with yellow and green; it had a bunch of red feathers on the top of its head. It was a large bird, as large as the moa”. Another description reported by the Reverend Stack (Stack, 1878, pg 63) said: “A Pouakai had built its nest on a spur of Mount Tawera, and darting down from thence it seized and carried off men, women, and children, as food for itself and its young. For, though its wings made a loud noise as it flew through the air, it rushed with such rapidity upon its prey that none could escape from its talons”. The carrying off of men and women is undoubtedly an exaggeration, but the description of its presence over open ground and mountainous terrain is consistent with our deductions.
So that is the sensational tidbit that the media can run with - this was a terrifying eagle that carried off children!! But the main thrust of the paper itself is in demonstrating that Haast's eagle was an active predator, with an oversized skull (hence disproportionately smaller brain) that attacked moas from the air, striking them with its strong, sensitive talons in the lower back over the kidneys and at the base of the skull. In the bigger evolutionary picture, this is a fascinating case study showing that neurological (brain) and somatic (body) expansion can be mismatched even in cases of island gigantism - there appears to be considerable flexibility in how natural selection affects different parts of the brain and body under different ecological conditions (such as the lack of predators or presence of new bigger prey).
Meanwhile, the other paper making the news this week goes the other way, describing a small Tyrannosaurid precursor of T. rex from
China that appears capable of hunting on its own too - because that lineage had already evolved skeletal features for the predatory lifestyle made famous by their much larger descendants! Large size was thus not a prerequisite for that lifestyle to evolve. Here's the abstract from Sereno et al in Science:
Tyrannosaurid dinosaurs comprised nearly all large-bodied predators (>2.5 tons) on northern continents during the Late Cretaceous. We show that their most conspicuous functional specializations—a proportionately large skull, incisiform premaxillary teeth, expanded jaw-closing musculature, diminutive forelimb, and a hindlimb with cursorial proportions—were present in a new small-bodied, basal tyrannosauroid from Lower Cretaceous rocks in northeastern China. These specializations, scaled up in Late Cretaceous tyrannosaurids with body masses approaching 100 times greater, drove the most dominant radiation of macropredators of the Mesozoic.
Better yet, thanks to Futurity, the new science portal I wrote about recently, we can get the story straight from Dr. Sereno's in this video:
Cool as a small Tyrannosaur sounds, this dude was still over 9 feet tall, so I'd still avoid it! And this latest among an already large set of fossil finds from China makes me wonder if the Jurassic Park franchise might head eastwards next!
- G. Grey (1873). Description of the extinct gigantic bird of prey, Hokioi, by a Maori. Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, 5: 435
- Scofield, R., & Ashwell, K. (2009). Rapid Somatic Expansion Causes the Brain to Lag Behind: The Case of the Brain and Behavior of New Zealand's Haast's Eagle (Harpagornis moorei)Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 29 (3), 637-649 DOI: 10.1671/039.029.0325
- Sereno, P., Tan, L., Brusatte, S., Kriegstein, H., Zhao, X., & Cloward, K. (2009). Tyrannosaurid Skeletal Design First Evolved at Small Body Size Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1177428
- J. W. Stack (1878). Sketch of the traditional history of the South Island Maoris. Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand , 10, 57-92
Friday, September 18, 2009
My students know I never tire of emphasizing the self-corrective nature of science: how scientific theories are always dynamic theories, constantly being tested against reality, discarded if they fail the test, and continuously revised and refined as we get a better and better approximation of truth. A good example of a scientist who put his own ideas, his life's work, through this process of continual testing and refinement is of course, Charles Darwin. We all know about how he hesitated to publish his theory of evolution by natural selection for c.20 years, 15 of those after he had written out a detailed "outline", but his work didn't stop with the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859 (we're coming up on the 150th anniversary of its publication in November this year). He continued to tinker with the book, tweaking the language, refining his arguments, and responding to criticisms as well by eventually adding a whole chapter on the subject - and publishing a total of 6 editions of the book over the next 13 years. Students taking Evolution at Fresno State have in recent years been reading the 1st edition of the classic book, chosen because we want them to experience the book as the world first encountered it, before Darwin had to worry about responding to critics. But the 6 editions themselves represent an evolution of sorts, with favored passages being preserved and refined while others were selected out. Darwin scholars have been studying the differences, and now the rest of us also have a new way to appreciate this textual evolution, through a fascinating new visualization created by Ben Fry of Seed Visualization's Phyllotaxis lab. This dynamic Flash graphic takes you through all the changes to the text much the same way a phylogeneticist might compare DNA sequence changes across a taxon's evolutionary lineage. And as you can see in the gel-like excerpt I've put at the top of this post, you can click on any "band" in any portion of the text-gel to read the mutations therein! Go check it out - its really cool! And read also Ben Fry's interview in Seed about this visualization.
A new portal for science straight from the horses' mouths on the internets (but ignore the odd name)
We scientists are always complaining about the quality of science reporting in the mainstream media, particularly in recent times when we've seen an alarming growth in anti-science movements in the US (be it creationism on the right or anti-vaccinationism on the left). You'll find my own rants on the subject in the archives of this very blog. In fact, the lack of quality science communication in the public sphere (i.e., outside the ivory tower) is the main reason some of us have jumped into science communication outside of our journals, e.g., by starting science cafes to reach our local communities, and blogging (coming up on 3 years of that for me!) for a broader audience. All taking time off from the research field site or lab bench so we could try to wrest that media megaphone from the jackanapes running newspapers (let alone TV newschannels) and journalism schools who don't give a hoot about employing people with any proper science education! The blogosphere has provided an excellent democratic medium for us to get the real science out directly, but its not exactly an alternative to a news channel, especially for smalltime bloggers like me. We have hundreds or thousands of science blogs now, many written by active scientists, but the effort is scattered across a similar large number of websites, which means most of our writing reaches mostly a fraction of those already motivated to read about science! Its not like someone is going to stumble upon my blog as they might if I had a column or even a letter in the Fresno Bee, is it? So we've had some blogging collectives emerge, the most prominent example being ScienceBlogs, which can attract more eyeballs, and keep them coming back for more (despite occasional outbreaks of distinctly odd non-science blogginess over there among the denizens of SB). This week a new portal has opened on the internets, with a more impressive pedigree: 35 top US universities have banded together to launch Futurity.org! Check out the impressive array of university logos on their about page which states:
Futurity.org made its debut as a beta site in March 2009 and formally launched on September 15. As an online research magazine, Futurity highlights the latest discoveries from leading universities in the United States and Canada.
Who is Futurity?
Duke University, Stanford University, and the University of Rochester lead a consortium of participating universities (see list below) that manages and funds the project. All partners are members of the Association of American Universities (AAU), a nonprofit organization of leading public and private research universities.
Futurity aggregates the very best research news. The content is produced by the partner universities, and submitted to Futurity’s editor (email@example.com) for consideration. The site, which is hosted at the University of Rochester, covers news in the environment, health, science, society, and other areas.
So now you have one more excellent source for quality science news straight from the frontiers of discovery at the best institutions in the US. In addition to the web portal, you can also partake of all this future-y science-y goodness on Facebook, Twitter, and even YouTube! How terrific is that?
I just wish they'd spent a little more time/effort coming up with a better name than Futurity!
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Its not clear yet if and how the Darwin biopic "Creation" may ever get distributed in the US, even as it readies for a UK release next week. There was some scuttlebutt yesterday when the NCSE tweeted a Bay Area NBC affiliate station's report that their parent company was in a "bidding war" over the US distribution rights! And the juicy tidbit in that story was that apparently Mel Gibson (he who managed to get his graphic movie about a guy being flogged and tortured for hours shown in churches all over the US, without the help of any major Hollywood distributors!) had actually helped finance this movie (him being Catholic, and Catholics saying they don't have a problem with Evolution - that's how some people tried to explain it)! Wow - would that have blown some fuses in the heads of the church-going fans of Gibson's Passion in the American heartlands!! But, alas, that won't happen, because that news story has been retracted/replaced, with this caveat:
The original article confused the film's distributor, Icon Distribution, with Mel Gibson owed [sic] Icon Productions. The companies use the exact same logo and indeed Icon Distribution was once owned by Gibson. It is no longer. We regret the error.
Huh?! Alrighty then... and so American journalism continues its reverse evolution - but that disease apparently afflicts the British press as well, for the very same Telegraph that lamented the lack of a US distributor for this movie had, two days earlier, published a truly egregious piece of "balanced" reporting about evolution vs. creationism! As for the movie itself, I still haven't seen any official word on how that NBC affiliate's parent company is doing in that "bidding war", nor if indeed there is any such war at all. In fact, their own latest story has no mention of any bidding!! Scores of fans on the movie's Facebook page, meanwhile, are rallying around demanding it be shown here, but who knows if they constitute enough of a market for the bean counters weighing faith-based backlash vs. the box office appeal of a 19th century nerd wrestling with serious scientfic/philosophical issues! Last night, on another media outlet likely genetically linked to the Bay Area station, Rachel Maddow and Kent Jones had probably the funniest take on the saga:
Sunday, September 13, 2009
These are strange and deeply worrisome times for democracy, science, and education in America, once the beacon of those very things which drew people like me from all over the world to its shores. From a global leader for science and free intellectual pursuits, how has America become a place where even one of the most significant scientists in human history is no longer welcome? Not even a biographical film about him! In a week when this country's very own democratically elected President was censored in the nation's public schools and heckled by a congressman, this news should come as no surprise, I suppose:
Creation, starring Paul Bettany, details Darwin's "struggle between faith and reason" as he wrote On The Origin of Species. It depicts him as a man who loses faith in God following the death of his beloved 10-year-old daughter, Annie.
The film was chosen to open the Toronto Film Festival and has its British premiere on Sunday. It has been sold in almost every territory around the world, from Australia to Scandinavia.
However, US distributors have resolutely passed on a film which will prove hugely divisive in a country where, according to a Gallup poll conducted in February, only 39 per cent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution.
Movieguide.org, an influential site which reviews films from a Christian perspective, described Darwin as the father of eugenics and denounced him as "a racist, a bigot and an 1800s naturalist whose legacy is mass murder". His "half-baked theory" directly influenced Adolf Hitler and led to "atrocities, crimes against humanity, cloning and genetic engineering", the site stated.
The film has sparked fierce debate on US Christian websites, with a typical comment dismissing evolution as "a silly theory with a serious lack of evidence to support it despite over a century of trying".
Jeremy Thomas, the Oscar-winning producer of Creation, said he was astonished that such attitudes exist 150 years after On The Origin of Species was published.
"That's what we're up against. In 2009. It's amazing," he said.
"The film has no distributor in America. It has got a deal everywhere else in the world but in the US, and it's because of what the film is about. People have been saying this is the best film they've seen all year, yet nobody in the US has picked it up.
"It is unbelievable to us that this is still a really hot potato in America. There's still a great belief that He made the world in six days. It's quite difficult for we in the UK to imagine religion in America. We live in a country which is no longer so religious. But in the US, outside of New York and LA, religion rules.
"Charles Darwin is, I suppose, the hero of the film. But we tried to make the film in a very even-handed way. Darwin wasn't saying 'kill all religion', he never said such a thing, but he is a totem for people."
Creation was developed by BBC Films and the UK Film Council, and stars Bettany's real-life wife Jennifer Connelly as Darwin's deeply religious wife, Emma. It is based on the book, Annie's Box, by Darwin's great-great-grandson, Randal Keynes, and portrays the naturalist as a family man tormented by the death in 1851 of Annie, his favourite child. She is played in the film by 10-year-old newcomer Martha West, the daughter of The Wire star Dominic West.
Early reviews have raved about the film. The Hollywood Reporter said: "It would be a great shame if those with religious convictions spurned the film out of hand as they will find it even-handed and wise."
Mr Thomas, whose previous films include The Last Emperor and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, said he hoped the reviews would help to secure a distributor. In the UK, special screenings have been set up for Christian groups.
And you thought the money-grubbing, amoral (or immoral), Hollywood movie business loved controversy and liked to make a buck off it whenever it could! Apparently not, if it might irritate a minority (I hope) of religious extremists, America's own Taliban. So a film about Darwin - a long dead and much celebrated scientist - seems much more dangerous to the fabric of this country than Borat! Sigh...
Sunday, September 6, 2009
Not that I want to make this blog much more autobiographical or self-indulgent (what the hell, its my blog!), but a recent thread on twitter and in the blogosphere, started by Andrew Maynard at 2020Science, with a follow-up by Steven Hill at Testing hypotheses... about how they were inspired to become scientists, has got me reminiscing again about my own sources of inspiration that led to this life in science. I also think my story might be worth sharing because of a background that is rather different from the others mentioned above - so allow me to offer a different view from another part of the world. Here, without further ado, is my list (in not strictly chronological order) of significant influences on the road to becoming a scientist:
- Mrs. Menon: my science teacher from ~5th grade on in New English High School in Ulhasnagar, a distant suburb of Bombay. She had a reputation as one of the best teachers in school, and I was really looking forward to being in her science labs. But scientific enlightenment came in a rather opposite way than I (and perhaps she) might have anticipated: not by example of what she knew and taught us, but by the realization during one class that she didn't know (or was confused about?) something quite basic! I remember vividly: she was lecturing us about how "water seeks its own level" with the example of a U-tube filled with water where if you raise one "arm" of the tube, water will appear to rise up that arm and fall down the other arm. Wait... what?! Shouldn't water fall in the arm being raised and rise in the other one to maintain its level? That was what I shot up my arm to ask her and we had a bit of an argument, with the rest of the class on the sidelines. I asked why we don't do the experiment and see what happens - surprisingly, she agreed, and pulled out a rubber u-tube. Of course, the experiment proved me right - and we went on with the rest of the lesson. Why has this incident (almost more than anything else I learned in the 12 years in that school) stayed with me so vividly? Because it shattered my illusion, nurtured in the traditional hierarchical culture of deference to elders and authority still prevalent in India, that these elders/authorities actually knew what they were talking about! They could be so wrong! And little old me could show them how they were wrong - empirically. What an empowering moment for a 10-year old!! In retrospect, it was remarkable the Mrs. Menon even allowed me to challenge her in class and let me conduct an experiment that proved her wrong in front of the whole class. And I still don't know to this day whether she went through the whole thing as a teaching device, to make us think, or if she had simply made a mistake and was sticking to her guns in the heat of the classroom moment when confronted by a student actually paying attention to what she was saying. My ego (and the fact that this was a unique event in all the years in her class) would like to think it was the latter, but as a teacher myself now I wonder if she was wilier than she let on? Either way, thank you Mrs. Menon, wherever you are, for setting me on the path to a life in science!
Charles Darwin. Of course, my students might say, rolling their eyes - but that's not a cliched answer! It was not reading anything Darwin wrote that got me into biology, but the story of his life as novelized by Irving Stone in The Origin which I picked up during college from a second-hand book-stall on the sidewalks of Flora Fountain in Bombay. (And thank you Dad, for alerting me to Stone's work in the first place by recommending his Lust for Life).
Libraries! A decent well-stocked public library is practically nonexistent in Indian towns, sadly. But Bombay offered alternatives, and me and my buddies, like so many others of our college generation, made the most of them, spending a lot of time in the very different libraries of the British Council (Darwin, Patrick Moore, Attenborough, Dawkins, and, of course, PGW), American Center (Gould, Sagan, Steinbeck, Asimov, Carson), and Soviet (yes - this was pre-perestroika! Engels, Tolstoy, Mayakovsky). These libraries opened up a whole world of science and wider literature that was largely unknown even to most of my college teachers (sad, but true).
Bombay's infamous local trains! If not for my daily commute from Ulhasnagar to Bombay VT (75-105 min each way depending upon whether I caught the fast or slow local), I never would have had the time to read all those wonderful books, nor ponder the mysteries of the universe!
The Institute of Science, a wonderful place not so much for my professors, but for its amazing library with a century-old collection of books and, more importantly, journals, actual science journals that we could blow the dust off of and marvel at (even if many subscriptions were no longer current). Here I was able to read not just about the discovery of DNA's double-helix structure, but the original Watson & Crick paper too!! The labs were pretty well equipped also with some real research ongoing - this is unusual again in the Indian context, where for most undergrads "science" is stuff you memorize from out-of-date textbooks and hand-me-down notes, rote dissections and lab "experiments" - not something you can, you know, get your hands dirty actually doing!! But this Institute (which, sadly, has walled itself off from undergraduate teaching once again) allowed a bunch of us ne'er-do-well undergrads to run around the labs tinkering with things, building telescopes, and generally having a ball learning to do science on our own.
Peers. And this is another one I want any students reading this to remember - your peers are perhaps the most important component of your learning, especially in science, so surround yourselves with curious, nerdy friends! Although I didn't have any truly inspirational (in the positive sense) science teachers until I reached graduate school, I was lucky enough to find a bunch of fellow-traveler-nerds with whom I shared a natural curiosity about the world and a growing love for science as a way to satisfy that curiosity. Vishy, Pradeep, Rajesh, Ravi, et al (and my sister Vaijoo) - if not for them, I might well have ended up a bank clerk or worse!
Finally, like Maynard, I must also tip my hat to all my school and undergrad science teachers who did their best to beat the curiosity and wide-eyed wonder out of me, to make science dull and tedious, to make me respect authority, to do well on standardized tests, and so help me get into medical school (my parents' ambition which I so utterly failed to fulfill)! And a special bow to the Head of the Biology Department at Ruia College (sorry I can't remember his name, this was in 1987) for taking a half hour of his valuable time trying to talk me out of joining the strange new MSc Wildlife program at the Wildlife Institute of India, to keep me from throwing a promising career away!! Thus, for my ability to withstand all that counter-programming, and persisting in this doomed business of science, I have to give another shout out to Mrs. Menon: thanks again, Ma'am!!
A final note for those of you who've known me since graduate school days and may wonder why I haven't mentioned any influences past 1987: its simple - I was already on the path to becoming a scientist by the time I got to WII. This list is of the signposts that helped me find that path in the first place!
Now, dear reader, how about sharing your own story? How did you become a scientist?