Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Rap Guide to Evolution - this weekend in Fresno!

My friend Scott Hatfield just pointed out a brilliant act premiering at the Rogue Festival in Fresno this weekend: The Rap Guide to Evolution! Its Richard Dawkins meets Eminem, to paraphrase the review in Science (yes, that AAAS journal, renowned for its rap reviews!):


Canadian rap artist, performance poet, and actor Baba Brinkman follows up his hilarious award-winning one-man show “The Rap Canterbury Tales” with a journey to the center of history’s greatest controversy: the Origin of Species. Brinkman’s powerful storytelling has been hailed the world over as an ingenious hybrid of rap and theatre. Fresh from a tour celebrating the 2009 Darwin Bicentennial in England, this will be the North American premier of “The Rap Guide to Evolution”.

It's a 50-minute show, rated PG-13 ('sexual references, mature subject matter, but NO SWEARING, he says").

Lead single "Natural Selection" featuring Richard Dawkins. Click here to Download.

The Rap Guide to Evolution” explores the history and current understanding of Darwin’s theory, combining remixes of popular rap songs with storytelling rap/poems that cover Natural Selection, Artificial Selection, Sexual Selection, Group Selection, Unity of Common Descent, and Evolutionary Psychology. Dr. Pallen has vetted the entire script for scientific and historical accuracy, making it a powerful teaching tool as well as a laugh-out-loud entertainment experience. The show also engages directly with challenging questions about cultural evolution, asking the audience to imagine themselves as the environment and the performer as an organism undergoing a form of live adaptation.

The Rap Guide to Evolution” was developed with the support of the British Council, and will be touring the UK in the summer of 2009, including the Edinburgh Fringe. Look out for recordings and videos coming soon to this site!

Here's a preview clip, via YouTube:

How can you resist the whole act after that? Perhaps I'll see you there this weekend!


Branford Marsalis' take on students today

Grade inflation at Harvard because they're afraid of losing money if students leave due to poor grades? Oh my - who's going to hold the line on standards then?


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Is this why ID/creationists bring up Mathematics so much?

Because they think numbers are so much more, you know, malleable than real physical evidence?





After all, it is a bit more work to ignore evolutionary patterns and make up stories to explain away fossils, radiometric dating, Galapagos finches, genes, pseudogenes, homologies, vestigial organs, patterns of distribution and succession, ring speciation, evo-devo... to mention just a few among myriad growing piles of evidence (not to mention the countless examples of plain bad "design"), than make up some equations. (With all due apologies to my mathematician friends!). Isn't "proof" in the made-up-mathematical sense so much easier to do (especially if you make up the solution in advance) than finding actual evidence to refute an empirical theory?


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Weird-cool bubble-headed Barreleyes like only evolution can come up with

Now here's a wonderful, bizarre discovery from scientists at our neighboring Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute:

Researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute recently solved the half-century-old mystery of a fish with tubular eyes and a transparent head. Ever since the "barreleye" fish Macropinna microstoma was first described in 1939, marine biologists have known that its tubular eyes are very good at collecting light. However, the eyes were believed to be fixed in place and seemed to provide only a "tunnel-vision" view of whatever was directly above the fish's head. A new paper by Bruce Robison and Kim Reisenbichler shows that these unusual eyes can rotate within a transparent shield that covers the fish's head. This allows the barreleye to peer up at potential prey or focus forward to see what it is eating.

The barreleye (Macropinna microstoma) has extremely light-sensitive eyes that can rotate within a transparent, fluid-filled shield on its head. The fish's tubular eyes are capped by bright green lenses. The eyes point upward (as shown here) when the fish is looking for food overhead. They point forward when the fish is feeding. The two spots above the fish's mouth are are olfactory organs called nares, which are analogous to human nostrils. Image: © 2004 MBARI

Deep-sea fish have adapted to their pitch-black environment in a variety of amazing ways. Several species of deep-water fishes in the family Opisthoproctidae are called "barreleyes" because their eyes are tubular in shape. Barreleyes typically live near the depth where sunlight from the surface fades to complete blackness. They use their ultra-sensitive tubular eyes to search for the faint silhouettes of prey overhead.

Although such tubular eyes are very good at collecting light, they have a very narrow field of view. Furthermore, until now, most marine biologists believed that barreleye's eyes were fixed in their heads, which would allow them to only look upward. This would make it impossible for the fishes to see what was directly in front of them, and very difficult for them to capture prey with their small, pointed mouths.

And what's more, the researchers got them on video too - look below the fold:

Robison and Reisenbichler used video from MBARI's remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to study barreleyes in the deep waters just offshore of Central California. At depths of 600 to 800 meters (2,000 to 2,600 feet) below the surface, the ROV cameras typically showed these fish hanging motionless in the water, their eyes glowing a vivid green in the ROV's bright lights. The ROV video also revealed a previously undescribed feature of these fish--its eyes are surrounded by a transparent, fluid-filled shield that covers the top of the fish's head.

Most existing descriptions and illustrations of this fish do not show its fluid-filled shield, probably because this fragile structure was destroyed when the fish were brought up from the deep in nets. However, Robison and Reisenbichler were extremely fortunate--they were able to bring a net-caught barreleye to the surface alive, where it survived for several hours in a ship-board aquarium. Within this controlled environment, the researchers were able to confirm what they had seen in the ROV video--the fish rotated its tubular eyes as it turned its body from a horizontal to a vertical position.

In addition to their amazing "headgear," barreleyes have a variety of other interesting adaptations to deep-sea life. Their large, flat fins allow them to remain nearly motionless in the water, and to maneuver very precisely (much like MBARI's ROVs). Their small mouths suggest that they can be very precise and selective in capturing small prey. On the other hand, their digestive systems are very large, which suggests that they can eat a variety of small drifting animals as well as jellies. In fact, the stomachs of the two net-caught fish contained fragments of jellies.

After documenting and studying the barreleye's unique adaptations, Robison and Reisenbichler developed a working hypothesis about how this animal makes a living. Most of the time, the fish hangs motionless in the water, with its body in a horizontal position and its eyes looking upward. The green pigments in its eyes may filter out sunlight coming directly from the sea surface, helping the barreleye spot the bioluminescent glow of jellies or other animals directly overhead. When it spots prey (such as a drifting jelly), the fish rotates its eyes forward and swims upward, in feeding mode.

Barreleyes share their deep-sea environment with many different types of jellies. Some of the most common are siphonophores (colonial jellies) in the genus Apolemia. These siphonophores grow to over 10 meters (33 feet) long. Like living drift nets, they trail thousands of stinging tentacles, which capture copepods and other small animals. The researchers speculate that barreleyes may maneuver carefully among the siphonophore's tentacles, picking off the captured organisms. The fish's eyes would rotate to help the fish keep its "eyes on the prize," while its transparent shield would protect the fish's eyes from the siphonophore's stinging cells.


Friday, February 20, 2009

On why your grade is not an entitlement...

Here's an interesting report in the New York Times today, reflecting something we experience routinely these days - a mismatch between what grade students expect to get for a class and what they actually earn!! Here's an excerpt - but read the entire article:

‘Many students come in with the conviction that they’ve worked hard and deserve a higher mark,’ Professor Grossman said. ‘Some assert that they have never gotten a grade as low as this before.’

He attributes those complaints to his students’ sense of entitlement.

‘I tell my classes that if they just do what they are supposed to do and meet the standard requirements, that they will earn a C,’ he said. ‘That is the default grade. They see the default grade as an A.’

A recent study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that a third of students surveyed said that they expected B’s just for attending lectures, and 40 percent said they deserved a B for completing the required reading.


Sarah Kinn, a junior English major at the University of Vermont, agreed, saying, “I feel that if I do all of the readings and attend class regularly that I should be able to achieve a grade of at least a B.”

At Vanderbilt, there is an emphasis on what Dean Hogge calls “the locus of control.” The goal is to put the academic burden on the student.

“Instead of getting an A, they make an A,” he said. “Similarly, if they make a lesser grade, it is not the teacher’s fault. Attributing the outcome of a failure to someone else is a common problem.”

For my part as a professor, I agree with this at the end and am trying to convey the same to all my classes:

...students must “read for knowledge and write with the goal of exploring ideas." ...

...if students developed a genuine interest in their field, grades would take a back seat, and holistic and intrinsically motivated learning could take place.

(Via NYT.)


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Truth of Evolution

What a day to raise the spirit of an evolutionary biologist wondering how a conversation about Darwin's legacy ended up being mostly about religion last friday! First, we got that wonderfully trenchant letter from Prof. Gottelli telling the DI to put-up real scientific evidence or shut-up! Next, as I drive home after pausing to soak in the (alas all too rare) view (from the campus parking lot) of freshly-snow-clad Sierras in the late-afternoon sun, what do I find waiting for me on the front porch? A package with Jerry Coyne's "Why Evolution Is True"!! Just what I need to curl up with...


In which an evolutionary biologist pwns the Discovery Institute!

This is just brilliant! Nick Gotelli, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Vermont got an invitation to debate someone from the Discovery Institute, that well-funded mouthpiece of the ID/creationist movement (read the invite in its entirety here). Many of us get these kinds of invitations from time to time - if not from the DI, then from various local surrogates. Sometimes even students will wonder why we don't debate them more often. My usual response is to decline, politely, because there is nothing really to "debate" (not on their terms) between evolution (well-tested science) and ID (creationism in disguise), and because scientific questions are never resolved through verbal debates anyway. Sometimes some of us will get sucked into engaging in these things, and the results are never particularly useful. But they keep coming back, especially in places like the central valley, and when we decline, they start claiming victory because biologists won't debate them because we're "afraid of losing", and spinning conspiracy theories (and even convincing some otherwise smart students) like in that Ben Stein movie. Its a despairing job to have to keep batting these nutjobs away. Now Prof. Gotelli has shown us how its done! Here's his response to the DI invitation:

Dear Dr. Klinghoffer:

Thank you for this interesting and courteous invitation to set up a debate about evolution and creationism (which includes its more recent relabeling as "intelligent design") with a speaker from the Discovery Institute. Your invitation is quite surprising, given the sneering coverage of my recent newspaper editorial that you yourself posted on the Discovery Institute's website:

However, this kind of two-faced dishonesty is what the scientific community has come to expect from the creationists.

Academic debate on controversial topics is fine, but those topics need to have a basis in reality. I would not invite a creationist to a debate on campus for the same reason that I would not invite an alchemist, a flat-earther, an astrologer, a psychic, or a Holocaust revisionist. These ideas have no scientific support, and that is why they have all been discarded by credible scholars. Creationism is in the same category.

Instead of spending time on public debates, why aren't members of your institute publishing their ideas in prominent peer-reviewed journals such as Science, Nature, or the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences? If you want to be taken seriously by scientists and scholars, this is where you need to publish. Academic publishing is an intellectual free market, where ideas that have credible empirical support are carefully and thoroughly explored. Nothing could possibly be more exciting and electrifying to biology than scientific disproof of evolutionary theory or scientific proof of the existence of a god. That would be Nobel Prize winning work, and it would be eagerly published by any of the prominent mainstream journals.

"Conspiracy" is the predictable response by Ben Stein and the frustrated creationists. But conspiracy theories are a joke, because science places a high premium on intellectual honesty and on new empirical studies that overturn previously established principles. Creationism doesn't live up to these standards, so its proponents are relegated to the sidelines, publishing in books, blogs, websites, and obscure journals that don't maintain scientific standards.

Finally, isn't it sort of pathetic that your large, well-funded institute must scrape around, panhandling for a seminar invitation at a little university in northern New England? Practicing scientists receive frequent invitations to speak in science departments around the world, often on controversial and novel topics. If creationists actually published some legitimate science, they would receive such invitations as well.

So, I hope you understand why I am declining your offer. I will wait patiently to read about the work of creationists in the pages of Nature and Science. But until it appears there, it isn't science and doesn't merit an invitation.

In closing, I do want to thank you sincerely for this invitation and for your posting on the Discovery Institute Website. As an evolutionary biologist, I can't tell you what a badge of honor this is. My colleagues will be envious.

Sincerely yours,

Nick Gotelli

P.S. I hope you will forgive me if I do not respond to any further e-mails from you or from the Discovery Institute. This has been entertaining, but it interferes with my research and teaching.

[via Pharyngula: How to respond to requests to debate creationists]

PWNED!! I believe that's how the kids would describe this. And I'll have to ask Prof. Gotelli if we can use this letter as a template for any future invitations from creationists!


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

An op-ed celebrating Darwin (or what the Fresno Bee didn't want you to read!)

My colleague Dr. Fred Schreiber (Dept. of Biology @ CSU Fresno) submitted the following op-ed essay to the Bee, which, disappointingly but unsurprisingly, did not get published last week. Well, you can read it here instead:

Op-ed to the Bee

by Fred Schreiber

Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, making this year the two hundredth anniversary of his birth. By an accident of timing in Darwin’s career, this is also the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his most famous publication, “On the Origin of Species”. So this year biologists and many others worldwide are celebrating one of our most careful observers of nature and, certainly, one of our seminal thinkers.

What did Darwin contribute to biology and society? We can answer by describing two of his major ideas.

First, the publication of “On the Origin of Species” quickly convinced biologists that living things are connected by the branches of a tree-like lineage. In other words, they evolved from common ancestors. This simple concept has had a profound influence over how we view the world and ourselves in it. We are related, not only to the apes, but also to birds, beetles, buttercups, and bacteria. We are simply one of many twigs on the tree of life.

Since Darwin, paleontologists have traced the fossil record and constructed the lineage of evolution in the geologic record. Similarly, morphologists and physiologists have traced the common patterns of form, function and metabolism among organisms.

Most recently, molecular biologists have found that DNA contains a record of the gradual changes in organisms as they evolved. For example, similar species such as humans, dogs and other mammals share about 90 per cent of the same genes, whereas more distantly related organisms, such as the yeast cell, share about 50 per cent of their genes with humans. Thus, half of our genes are found in the organism that we use for brewing beer and raising bread.

Second, Darwin proposed a mechanism for how organisms change over time, natural selection. This idea had a rougher road to acceptance. Only after the development of population genetics were most biologists convinced that Darwin was correct. This didn’t happen until around 1940, eighty years after Darwin first proposed the idea. Biologists, like all scientists, are a tough audience until they see enough supporting data.

But why do we now consider evolution to be so central to modern biology? Because it integrates the entire discipline. Evolution is to biology as the periodic table is to chemistry, plate tectonics is to geology and quantum mechanics is to physics. None of these disciplines make any sense without these core ideas.

Natural selection helps us understand why there are thousands of naturally occurring varieties of potatoes in Peru, why and how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics and why the genes for antibiotic resistance are widespread in soil bacteria. Evolution helps us understand why heart disease, cancer, and diabetes have replaced death due to infectious disease as nutrition and medicine have improved over the past century.

Natural selection makes sense of much of modern medicine. We can trace the evolution of the AIDS virus and study the gradual adaptation of the virus to infecting humans. Just as we explain the origin of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, we can explain why antiviral drugs work over the short term but become ineffective over the long term. Our knowledge of how viruses adapt is the basis for great concern about the H5N1 strain of the influenza virus currently jumping from domestic birds to humans in the Far East. If the virus evolves to be easily transmitted from person to person, we could have a worldwide flu pandemic. Natural selection helps us to understand why parts of Europe have a relatively low rate of diabetes and other human populations have a disastrously high rate of the disease.

The best scientific explanation for species origins is evolution by means of natural selection. Alternative ideas have been tested over the past two centuries, including special creation and an early version of intelligent design. The overwhelming majority of biologists long ago rejected these alternates. They have no explanatory power, no credible evidence, and have long been regarded as non-science, as they invoke supernatural causation.

The Biology Department at Fresno State has an evolution course that is taught as a capstone course for our majors, but evolutionary principles are used in all of our courses. It is impossible to explain biology to our students without it. We could no more teach biology without evolution than we could without physiology, ecology or genetics.

Finally, there are some ideas like the periodic table and evolution that now have so much evidence in their favor, we must use them. It has become unlikely that either biology or chemistry will find something better. Our sciences make no sense without these organizing principles.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Darwin and Lincoln - twin peaks

I've been highlighting the Darwin bicentennial here (as appropriate for an evolution focused blog), much like the British media, while much of the US media has been celebrating the Lincoln bicentennial this week. There are even some (as I pointed out recently) drawing parallels and connections between the two great men in terms of their impacts on the world at large. The February 2009 issue of Smithsonian Magazine is covering both with an interesting set of articles about what the two men born 200 years ago today have meant for the generations following in (or shying away from) their footsteps.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life

Here you go, the Attenborough documentary shown recently on BBC, in 6 parts! There's much more on the Wellcome Trust's Tree of Life companion site

Part 1:

Look below the fold for the rest...

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

Part 6:


Everybody's Darwin

Charles Darwin image for cut outNature has a special issue and website celebrating Darwin this week. The lovely cover portrait claims Darwin for all of us. Here on campus, we will have a more intimate opportunity to claim Darwin for ourselves, at our birthday party & reception tomorrow afternoon. We can all have our pictures taken with Charlie, courtesy of Carl Buell who has painted and, very generously, shared with us this life-size portrait of Darwin. Our own Dr. Schreiber and members of the Biology Club will have the portrait and a digital camera available tomorrow afternoon, and invite you to come and have your picture taken! All photos will be made available to you electronically, and posted on Flickr as well. Join us in making Darwin our own!

In the meantime, watch this interview where Sir David Attenborough talks about Darwin. I'll add some more interviews shortly.

And here's a preview of "Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life".


David Attenborough on Darwin and Evolution

Sir David Attenborough was interviewed on several British TV channels in anticipation of his latest documentary, broadcast on BBC lon Feb 1. I just found a couple that you might enjoy.

I'll find "Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life" to share soon also.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Darwin Aloud

From my email this morning, here's another fun way to participate in celebrating Charles Darwin's bicentennial - by videotaping yourself reading some of the most poetic passages of his most famous work:

Charles Darwin image for cut out

Darwin Day is a world-wide tribute to a great scientist who changed forever our perception of the human species and the nature of life. This year, the Center for Inquiry is honoring Darwin with a special video project:

Darwin Aloud

This Darwin Day, we're asking people all over the world to shoot video of themselves reading from the poetic last chapter of The Origin of Species while standing in front of famous landmarks in their countries. Then, as a tribute to Darwin's Theory of Evolution, the grand unifying concept of biology that unifies all of us and all life on Earth, we'll collect all this video and assemble the footage into a film dedicated to Darwin and honoring his accomplishments.

"Despite overwhelming evidence in support of evolution, Darwin's theory has seen a lot of resistance and even hostility, especially in the past few decades," said James Underdown, Executive Director of CFI Los Angeles and creator of the project. "We in the pro-science community want to make it clear that the whole world supports Darwin's idea, regardless of background or location."

To learn more about Darwin Aloud, including tips on how best to read, film, and submit your segment, please visit You can even download a Letter to your Friends, telling them about Darwin Aloud and inviting them to participate.

We don't lack for significant landmarks around Fresno, so how many of you are interested in participating in this?


On the Origin of Species... read by Richard Dawkins

For those of you in my Evolution class winding your way through Darwin's incredible tome (especially those of you struggling a bit with the prose), this might help: an audiobook version abridged and read wonderfully Richard Dawkins. Here's the review from Times Online:

[Dawkins] excised the out-of-date, disproved and irrelevant bits (while being amazed at ‘how much Darwin got right') to produce a lively version of the great work that gave us the term ‘evolution'. You have to concentrate pretty hard sometimes, but close attention reveals a dazzling talent for the observation and analysis that formed the theories. Darwin's marvellous descriptions cover the gamut of living species that, be they pigeons, spiders or flowers, are engaged in ‘the universal struggle for life'. ‘Natural selection is a power incessantly ready for action' in this continuing process. Dawkins reads engagingly, and the whole effect is like David Attenborough without the pictures.

[via On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, read by Richard Dawkins]

Just might make your own reading of the (unabridged) book more enjoyable. You can listen to a 5-min excerpt for free on the Times page, and download via iTunes for less than the price of a movie ticket! What a bargain. Of course, an unabridged audiobook version is also available - read by David Case, rather than Dawkins.



Monday, February 9, 2009

Blogging the Voyage of the Beagle

Charles DarwinWhat if Darwin had access to today's technology, especially the internet and all this web 2.0 stuff? As it is, he was an incredibly well-connected / networked guy for the first half of the 19th century, corresponding with all manner of people from all over the world, from top scientists of the day to breeders of dogs and pigeons, and even amateur beetle-fancying shoe-salesmen. Would he have been more or less productive with access to blogs/facebook/twitter/friendfeed etc? We'll never know... but we can try to map his prodigious correspondence and writing onto these modern devices and re-create a web 2.0 version of Darwin, can't we? Has someone created a facebook page for him yet? I dunno, but it might just be a matter of time. I just discovered (thanks, Bora) the The Voyage of the Beagle as a blog! This is how he would have done it, surely - blogging his travels as modern-day explorers do. And, of course, if Darwin blogged, surely he would've micro-blogged, on twitter! So if you are a twitterer, you can follow Charlie's twitter stream as well!


Thursday, February 5, 2009

On Darwin, Lincoln, and modern life

Struggling to fall asleep last night with this nasty cold-flu thing that has me in its grips for the past several days, I happened upon the Charlie Rose Show on PBS. I'm not a regular viewer of this show, what with Rose's penchant for giving so much air time to that airhead pundit Thomas Friedman (64 appearances!!! really need that much hot air, Charlie?!). But Rose does get some excellent guests from time to time, and provides space for a deeper conversation than the typical tv talk-show - one has to give him that! And last night was just such an occasion, for Charlie had on the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, discussing his latest work: "Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life", which sounds absolutely fascinating. I was pleased to discover just now that the Charlie Rose show offers entire programs online, allowing me to embed this interview below. The first half is what really gripped me, with Gopnik talking about Darwin and Lincoln — men born in a cosmic coincidence on February 12, 1809 — as embodying the twin pillars of the modern world: science and liberal democracy. So true! This is really well worth listening to when both these figures loom so large in our consciousness in this month of their bicentennial. And you Evolution students really need to pay attention when Gopnik describes Darwin's writing style! The second half is about a more recent interesting figure, the late writer John Updike. Here, watch the whole thing:

Now I've got one more "short" book to add to my reading pile - terrific!


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Evolution Will Be Televised

And may be viewed by those of you fortunate to be subscribed to the National Geographic TV channel via cable/satellite. The above is the tagline NatGeoTV is using to promote their celebration of Darwin's 200th birthday. Click on the image here for the program, which kicks off this Sunday, Feb 8th with a new 3-part series "Morphed".

They will also run a live-blog starting an hour before Morphed, and are already inviting questions in their Evolution forum. Then on the 10th, they're showing Darwin's Secret Notebooks, and Explorer: Monster Fish of the Congo. All of this looks pretty exciting, and I will try to post previews/reviews as time permits over the next couple of weeks. I may even try a bit of live-blogging here if enough of the students are interested (so let me know!). And if you don't have access to NatGeoTV, find someone who does and might tolerate you on their couch for a few hours! Meanwhile, the complete announcement I received in my email, with links to video clips, is below the fold:

Below are brief descriptions of each of our five Darwin-related programs, and attached is the full press release for your information.


Sunday, February 8, 2009 at 8PM – 11PM ET/PT, with Live Blogging Event at 7PM ET/PT

Using advanced CGI, forensic examination of the latest fossil evidence and 3-D, biomechanic animation, Morphed brings ancient creatures back to life and recreates the most dramatic forces impacting their evolution from natural disasters to competitors and brushes with extinction.  Also, during the first hour of Morphed, join a panel of experts in the fields of biology, molecular science, and theology for a Live Blogging Event to discuss the topic of evolution and its significance in today's science community, education, and its relationship to religion and theology. Be sure to submit your questions in advance at and log in on Sunday, February 8 at 7 PM ET/PT! The three back-to-back episode premieres include:

MORPHED: FROM DINOSAUR TO TURKEY digs 230 million years back into the fossil record to witness the emergence of the first dinosaur and follows different dinosaur species as they respond to changes in the earth's environment.

Video "Dinosaur Descendents" – Next Year at Thanksgiving dinner, imagine you're eating a dinosaur. You won't be far from the truth:

MORPHED: WHEN WHALES HAD LEGS examines the environmental pressures that turned a wolflike creature that hunted in shallow waters into a leviathan of the seas.

Video "Ancient Whale Bones" – In the plains of Pakistan, archaeologists discover clues to help solve the mystery of how land mammals became whales:

MORPHED: BEFORE THEY WERE BEARS travels back 30 million years to watch the bear's doglike ancestor climb down from the trees of central Europe and set out on a journey that spanned the planet.

Video "Giant Historic Bear" – In the struggle for survival, the giant short-faced bear evolved into a towering kiling machine:


Tuesday, February 10, 2009 at 9 PM ET/PT

Using Darwin's own diary and field notes as a travel guide, National Geographic Channel retrace Darwin's expedition beyond the Galapagos to uncover the forgotten evidence that inspired his revolutionary work. We see how fossils in Argentina, seashells in the Andes and fish in the South Pacific helped him cultivate his radical theory of evolution.

Video "Inside Darwin's Mind" – The oddity of flightless birds leads Darwin to question the intentions of the Creator:


Tuesday, February 10, 2009 at 10 PM ET/PT

Join a team of adventurers and scientists and travel deep into the heart of Africa's Congo River Basin in search of an elusive man-sized predator known as the tiger fish.  While locals believe this ravenous relative of the piranha is cursed, scientists believe the fearsome fish may hold the key to understanding the evolution of an extraordinary array of bizarre creatures found throughout the Congo.


Do you have a bit of Neandertal in you?

Of course, we undoubtedly share the bulk of our DNA sequence with our long-lost cousins, the Neanderthals. But more interesting is the question of whether our direct ancestors actually ever got it on with the Neanderthals! Was there any nookie... er... horizontal transfer of genetic material between them? That could get really interesting, no? Well, it appears we're getting closer to finding out:

The entire genome of a 38,000-year-old Neanderthal has been sequenced by a team of scientists in Germany. The group is already extracting DNA from other ancient Neanderthal bones and hopes that the genomes will allow an unprecedented comparison between modern humans and their closest evolutionary relative.

The three-year project, which cost about €5 million (US$6.4 million), was carried out at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. Project leader Svante Pääbo will announce the results of the preliminary genomic analysis at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Chicago, Illinois, which starts on 12 February.

[via Neanderthal genome to be unveiled : Nature News]


Happy 200th Charlie! Darwin's Bulldogs got your back in the valley!!

As we celebrate his 200th birthday here on the Fresno State campus, as indeed worldwide, I am thrilled to share the news that some local friends of Charles Darwin have come together to form a new coalition:

Welcome to the Consortium for Evolutionary Studies at California State University, Fresno.

We are a new interdisciplinary campus entity dedicated to the study of evolutionary topics from multiple scholarly perspectives. The consortium has coalesced on the occasion of the the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth - Darwin Day 2009. The consortium consists of faculty and students from several colleges and departments at CSU Fresno. We invite all interested members of the campus community to join us in the promotion of evolutionary theory, science and reason.

[via Darwin's Bulldogs]

Yes, we are calling ourselves Darwin's Bulldogs, establishing a connection not only to our campus mascot, but all the way back to Thomas Henry Huxley, the original Darwin's Bulldog! We can sure use his inspiration here in the Central Valley as we find ourselves still fighting battles Huxley won long ago in England. (and if you must ask, I made a teeny contribution coming up with that association and that moniker for our group! and designing the website too). We've already announced a series of events for Darwin Day 2009 on the website, and look forward to making this a vibrant interdisciplinary venture on campus. Bookmark the website. Join us in the festivities, and email me if you want to know more about the consortium.


Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Evolution as a path to emancipation

One of the worst canards that the creationists like to throw at Darwin is that his theory led directly to the 20th centuries atrocities of Stalin, Hitler and the holocaust. The most egregious and blatant example of this was in Ben Stein's propaganda piece last year. I wonder what these people will have to say to this new perspective on what motivated Darwin to develop his theory of evolution and search for a common ancestor for all human beings, and other species:

"It makes one's blood boil," said Charles Darwin.

Not much outraged the gentle recluse, but the horrors of slavery could cost him a night's sleep.

He was thinking of the whipped house boy and the thumbscrews used by old ladies in South America, atrocities he had witnessed on the Beagle voyage.

The screams stayed with him for life, but how much did they influence his life's work?

Today you can still read of Darwin's "eureka" moment when he saw the Galapagos finches.

Alas, his conversion to evolution wasn't so simple, but it was much more interesting. It didn't occur in the Galapagos, but probably on his arrival home.

And new evidence suggests that Darwin's unique approach to evolution - relating all races and species by "common descent" - could have been fostered by his anti-slavery beliefs.

[via BBC NEWS | Darwin's twin track: 'Evolution and emancipation']

Darwin wrote with considerable feeling about his experiences among the natives of South America, as in this passage from "The Voyage of the Beagle:

"On the 19th of August we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country. To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco, I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to remonstrate. I suspected that these moans were from a tortured slave, for I was told that this was the case in another instance. Near Rio de Janeiro I lived opposite to an old lady, who kept screws to crush the fingers of her female slaves. I have stayed in a house where a young household mulatto, daily and hourly, was reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal. I have seen a little boy, six or seven years old, struck thrice with a horse-whip..."

As the BBC article, and the new book, traces some of the less well-known aspects of his life-story, it is worth remembering that Darwin had another, less luminary mentor: a freed slave who taught him taxidermy and likely planted the seeds of longing for the lush tropical forests of distant South America five years before he got the famous invitation to join the Beagle's voyage. During February-April 1826 young Charles spent a significant interlude with:

John Edmonstone, a freed black slave from Guyana, South America, taught Darwin taxidermy. The two of them often sat together for conversation, and John would fill Darwin's head with vivid pictures of the tropical rain forests of South America. These pleasant conversations with John may have later inspired Darwin to dream about exploring the tropics. In any event, the taxidermy skills Darwin learned from him were indispensable during his voyage aboard H.M.S. Beagle in 1831.

Another remarkable chapter from the life of a remarkable man, who was way ahead of his times. Another reason to celebrate the man... but I'm not holding my breath for the creationists to stop vilifying him, much less join the celebration.



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