The agents of natural selection cause evolutionary changes in population gene pools. They include a plethora of familiar abiotic and biotic factors that affect growth, development, and reproduction in all living things.Add a Comment
The agents of natural selection cause evolutionary changes in population gene pools. They include a plethora of familiar abiotic and biotic factors that affect growth, development, and reproduction in all living things.Add a Comment
My first experience of an academic conference as a biology books editor at Oxford University Press was of sitting in a ballroom in Ottawa in July 2012 listening to 3000 evolutionary biologists chanting ‘I’m a African’ while a rapper danced in front of a projection of Charles DarwinAdd a Comment
Environmental Epigenetics is a new, international, peer-reviewed, fully open access journal, which publishes research in any area of science and medicine related to the field of epigenetics, with particular interest on environmental relevance. With the first issue scheduled to launch this summer, we found this to be the perfect time to speak with Dr. Michael K. […]
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As the 2016 presidential election season begins (US politics, unlike nature, has seasons that are two years long), we will once again see Republican politicians ducking questions about the validity of evolution. Scott Walker did that recently in response to a London interviewer. During the previous campaign, Rick Perry answered the question by observing that there are “some gaps” in the theory of evolution and that creationism is taught in the Texas public schools (it isn’t, of course).Add a Comment
Imagine a plant that grew into a plum pudding, a cricket bat, or even a pair of trousers. Rather than being a magical transformation straight out of Cinderella, these ‘wonderful plants’ were instead to be found in Victorian Britain. Just one of the Fairy-Tales of Science introduced by chemist and journalist John Cargill Brough in his ‘book for youth’ of 1859, these real-world connections and metamorphoses that traced the origins of everyday objects were arguably even more impressive than the fabled conversion of pumpkin to carriage (and back again).Add a Comment
Molecular biology continues to inform science on a daily basis and reveal what it means to be human beings as we discover our place in the universe. With the ability to engage science in ways that were unimaginable only a few decades ago, we can obtain the genetic profile of a germ, discover the roots of unicellular life and uncover the mysteries of now extinct Neanderthals.
In One Plus One Equals One, author John Archibald unmasks the wonders of biotechnology, showing readers how evolution has interacted with the subcellular components of life from the beginning to present day. With molecular biology, we can look back more than three billion years to reveal the microbial activities that underpin the development of complex life, just as we can look at the inner workings of our own cells. Take a look around and ask yourself, how much do you know about the world around us?
Headline image credit: HINGOLGADH. Photo by Kalpeshzala59. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
First published in Philosophy Now Issue 91, July/Aug 2012.
For the vast majority of our 150,000 years or so on the planet, we lived in small, close-knit groups, working hard with primitive tools to scratch sufficient food and shelter from the land. Sometimes we competed with other small groups for limited resources. Thanks to evolution, we are supremely well adapted to that world, not only physically, but psychologically, socially and through our moral dispositions.
But this is no longer the world in which we live. The rapid advances of science and technology have radically altered our circumstances over just a few centuries. The population has increased a thousand times since the agricultural revolution eight thousand years ago. Human societies consist of millions of people. Where our ancestors’ tools shaped the few acres on which they lived, the technologies we use today have effects across the world, and across time, with the hangovers of climate change and nuclear disaster stretching far into the future. The pace of scientific change is exponential. But has our moral psychology kept up?
With great power comes great responsibility. However, evolutionary pressures have not developed for us a psychology that enables us to cope with the moral problems our new power creates. Our political and economic systems only exacerbate this. Industrialisation and mechanisation have enabled us to exploit natural resources so efficiently that we have over-stressed two-thirds of the most important eco-systems.
A basic fact about the human condition is that it is easier for us to harm each other than to benefit each other. It is easier for us to kill than it is for us to save a life; easier to injure than to cure. Scientific developments have enhanced our capacity to benefit, but they have enhanced our ability to harm still further. As a result, our power to harm is overwhelming. We are capable of forever putting an end to all higher life on this planet. Our success in learning to manipulate the world around us has left us facing two major threats: climate change – along with the attendant problems caused by increasingly scarce natural resources – and war, using immensely powerful weapons. What is to be done to counter these threats?
Our Natural Moral Psychology
Our sense of morality developed around the imbalance between our capacities to harm and to benefit on the small scale, in groups the size of a small village or a nomadic tribe – no bigger than a hundred and fifty or so people. To take the most basic example, we naturally feel bad when we cause harm to others within our social groups. And commonsense morality links responsibility directly to causation: the more we feel we caused an outcome, the more we feel responsible for it. So causing a harm feels worse than neglecting to create a benefit. The set of rights that we have developed from this basic rule includes rights not to be harmed, but not rights to receive benefits. And we typically extend these rights only to our small group of family and close acquaintances. When we lived in small groups, these rights were sufficient to prevent us harming one another. But in the age of the global society and of weapons with global reach, they cannot protect us well enough.
There are three other aspects of our evolved psychology which have similarly emerged from the imbalance between the ease of harming and the difficulty of benefiting, and which likewise have been protective in the past, but leave us open now to unprecedented risk:
Case Study: Climate Change and the Tragedy of the Commons
There is a well-known cooperation or coordination problem called ‘the tragedy of the commons’. In its original terms, it asks whether a group of village herdsmen sharing common pasture can trust each other to the extent that it will be rational for each of them to reduce the grazing of their own cattle when necessary to prevent over-grazing. One herdsman alone cannot achieve the necessary saving if the others continue to over-exploit the resource. If they simply use up the resource he has saved, he has lost his own chance to graze but has gained no long term security, so it is not rational for him to self-sacrifice. It is rational for an individual to reduce his own herd’s grazing only if he can trust a sufficient number of other herdsmen to do the same. Consequently, if the herdsmen do not trust each other, most of them will fail to reduce their grazing, with the result that they will all starve.
The tragedy of the commons can serve as a simplified small-scale model of our current environmental problems, which are caused by billions of polluters, each of whom contributes some individually-undetectable amount of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Unfortunately, in such a model, the larger the number of participants the more inevitable the tragedy, since the larger the group, the less concern and trust the participants have for one another. Also, it is harder to detect free-riders in a larger group, and humans are prone to free ride, benefiting from the sacrifice of others while refusing to sacrifice themselves. Moreover, individual damage is likely to become imperceptible, preventing effective shaming mechanisms and reducing individual guilt.
Anthropogenic climate change and environmental destruction have additional complicating factors. Although there is a large body of scientific work showing that the human emission of greenhouse gases contributes to global climate change, it is still possible to entertain doubts about the exact scale of the effects we are causing – for example, whether our actions will make the global temperature increase by 2°C or whether it will go higher, even to 4°C – and how harmful such a climate change will be.
In addition, our bias towards the near future leaves us less able to adequately appreciate the graver effects of our actions, as they will occur in the more remote future. The damage we’re responsible for today will probably not begin to bite until the end of the present century. We will not benefit from even drastic action now, and nor will our children. Similarly, although the affluent countries are responsible for the greatest emissions, it is in general destitute countries in the South that will suffer most from their harmful effects (although Australia and the south-west of the United States will also have their fair share of droughts). Our limited and parochial altruism is not strong enough to provide a reason for us to give up our consumerist life-styles for the sake of our distant descendants, or our distant contemporaries in far-away places.
Given the psychological obstacles preventing us from voluntarily dealing with climate change, effective changes would need to be enforced by legislation. However, politicians in democracies are unlikely to propose such legislation. Effective measures will need to be tough, and so are unlikely to win a political leader a second term in office. Can voters be persuaded to sacrifice their own comfort and convenience to protect the interests of people who are not even born yet, or to protect species of animals they have never even heard of? Will democracy ever be able to free itself from powerful industrial interests? Democracy is likely to fail. Developed countries have the technology and wealth to deal with climate change, but we do not have the political will.
If we keep believing that responsibility is directly linked to causation, that we are more responsible for the results of our actions than the results of our omissions, and that if we share responsibility for an outcome with others our individual responsibility is lowered or removed, then we will not be able to solve modern problems like climate change, where each person’s actions contribute imperceptibly but inevitably. If we reject these beliefs, we will see that we in the rich, developed countries are more responsible for the misery occurring in destitute, developing countries than we are spontaneously inclined to think. But will our attitudes change?
Our moral shortcomings are preventing our political institutions from acting effectively. Enhancing our moral motivation would enable us to act better for distant people, future generations, and non-human animals. One method to achieve this enhancement is already practised in all societies: moral education. Al Gore, Friends of the Earth and Oxfam have already had success with campaigns vividly representing the problems our selfish actions are creating for others – others around the world and in the future. But there is another possibility emerging. Our knowledge of human biology – in particular of genetics and neurobiology – is beginning to enable us to directly affect the biological or physiological bases of human motivation, either through drugs, or through genetic selection or engineering, or by using external devices that affect the brain or the learning process. We could use these techniques to overcome the moral and psychological shortcomings that imperil the human species. We are at the early stages of such research, but there are few cogent philosophical or moral objections to the use of specifically biomedical moral enhancement – or moral bioenhancement. In fact, the risks we face are so serious that it is imperative we explore every possibility of developing moral bioenhancement technologies – not to replace traditional moral education, but to complement it. We simply can’t afford to miss opportunities. We have provided ourselves with the tools to end worthwhile life on Earth forever. Nuclear war, with the weapons already in existence today could achieve this alone. If we must possess such a formidable power, it should be entrusted only to those who are both morally enlightened and adequately informed.
Objection 1: Too Little, Too Late?
We already have the weapons, and we are already on the path to disastrous climate change, so perhaps there is not enough time for this enhancement to take place. Moral educators have existed within societies across the world for thousands of years – Buddha, Confucius and Socrates, to name only three – yet we still lack the basic ethical skills we need to ensure our own survival is not jeopardised. As for moral bioenhancement, it remains a field in its infancy.
We do not dispute this. The relevant research is in its inception, and there is no guarantee that it will deliver in time, or at all. Our claim is merely that the requisite moral enhancement is theoretically possible – in other words, that we are not biologically or genetically doomed to cause our own destruction – and that we should do what we can to achieve it.
Objection 2: The Bootstrapping Problem
We face an uncomfortable dilemma as we seek out and implement such enhancements: they will have to be developed and selected by the very people who are in need of them, and as with all science, moral bioenhancement technologies will be open to abuse, misuse or even a simple lack of funding or resources.
The risks of misapplying any powerful technology are serious. Good moral reasoning was often overruled in small communities with simple technology, but now failure of morality to guide us could have cataclysmic consequences. A turning point was reached at the middle of the last century with the invention of the atomic bomb. For the first time, continued technological progress was no longer clearly to the overall advantage of humanity. That is not to say we should therefore halt all scientific endeavour. It is possible for humankind to improve morally to the extent that we can use our new and overwhelming powers of action for the better. The very progress of science and technology increases this possibility by promising to supply new instruments of moral enhancement, which could be applied alongside traditional moral education.
Objection 3: Liberal Democracy – a Panacea?
In recent years we have put a lot of faith in the power of democracy. Some have even argued that democracy will bring an ‘end’ to history, in the sense that it will end social and political development by reaching its summit. Surely democratic decision-making, drawing on the best available scientific evidence, will enable government action to avoid the looming threats to our future, without any need for moral enhancement?
In fact, as things stand today, it seems more likely that democracy will bring history to an end in a different sense: through a failure to mitigate human-induced climate change and environmental degradation. This prospect is bad enough, but increasing scarcity of natural resources brings an increased risk of wars, which, with our weapons of mass destruction, makes complete destruction only too plausible.
Sometimes an appeal is made to the so-called ‘jury theorem’ to support the prospect of democracy reaching the right decisions: even if voters are on average only slightly more likely to get a choice right than wrong – suppose they are right 51% of the time – then, where there is a sufficiently large numbers of voters, a majority of the voters (ie, 51%) is almost certain to make the right choice.
However, if the evolutionary biases we have already mentioned – our parochial altruism and bias towards the near future – influence our attitudes to climatic and environmental policies, then there is good reason to believe that voters are more likely to get it wrong than right. The jury theorem then means it’s almost certain that a majority will opt for the wrong policies! Nor should we take it for granted that the right climatic and environmental policy will always appear in manifestoes. Powerful business interests and mass media control might block effective environmental policy in a market economy.
Modern technology provides us with many means to cause our downfall, and our natural moral psychology does not provide us with the means to prevent it. The moral enhancement of humankind is necessary for there to be a way out of this predicament. If we are to avoid catastrophe by misguided employment of our power, we need to be morally motivated to a higher degree (as well as adequately informed about relevant facts). A stronger focus on moral education could go some way to achieving this, but as already remarked, this method has had only modest success during the last couple of millennia. Our growing knowledge of biology, especially genetics and neurobiology, could deliver additional moral enhancement, such as drugs or genetic modifications, or devices to augment moral education.
The development and application of such techniques is risky – it is after all humans in their current morally-inept state who must apply them – but we think that our present situation is so desperate that this course of action must be investigated.
We have radically transformed our social and natural environments by technology, while our moral dispositions have remained virtually unchanged. We must now consider applying technology to our own nature, supporting our efforts to cope with the external environment that we have created.
Biomedical means of moral enhancement may turn out to be no more effective than traditional means of moral education or social reform, but they should not be rejected out of hand. Advances are already being made in this area. However, it is too early to predict how, or even if, any moral bioenhancement scheme will be achieved. Our ambition is not to launch a definitive and detailed solution to climate change or other mega-problems. Perhaps there is no realistic solution. Our ambition at this point is simply to put moral enhancement in general, and moral bioenhancement in particular, on the table. Last century we spent vast amounts of resources increasing our ability to cause great harm. It would be sad if, in this century, we reject opportunities to increase our capacity to create benefits, or at least to prevent such harm.
© Prof. Julian Savulescu and Prof. Ingmar Persson 2012
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Julian Savulescu is a Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University and Ingmar Persson is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Gothenburg. This article is drawn from their book Unfit for the Future: The Urgent Need for Moral Enhancement (Oxford University Press, 2012).
Hominins and their closest living relative, chimpanzees, diverged approximately 6.5 million years ago on African continent. Fossil evidence suggests hominins have migrated away from Africa at least twice since then. Crania of the first wave of migrants, such as Neanderthals in Europe and Peking Man in East Asia, show distinct morphological features that are different from contemporary humans (also known as Homo sapiens sapiens). The first wave of migration was estimated to have occurred 7-9,000,000 years ago. In the 1990s, studies on Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA proved that the contemporary Eurasians are descendants of the second wave of migrants, who migrated out of Africa less than 100,000 years ago.
It has been reported that the habitats of Neanderthals and ancestors of contemporary Eurasians overlapped both in time and space, and therefore provides possibility of introgression between Neanderthals and ancestors of Eurasians. This possibility is confirmed by recent studies, which suggest that about 1-4% of Eurasian genomes are from Neanderthal introgression.
Adaptation to local environment is crucial for newly-arrived migrants, and the process of local adaptation is sometimes time-consuming. Since Neanderthals arrived in Eurasia ten times earlier than ancestors of Eurasians, we are trying to figure out whether the Neanderthal introgressions helped the ancestors of Eurasians adapt to the local environment.
Our study reports that Neanderthal introgressive segments on chromosome 3 may have helped East Asians adapting to the intensity of ultraviolet-B (UV-B) irradiation in sunlight. We call the region containing the Neanderthal introgression the “HYAL” region, as it contains three genes that encode hyaluronoglucosaminidases.
We first noticed that the entire HYAL region is included in an unusually large linkage disequilibrium (LD) block in East Asian populations. Such a large LD block is a typical signature of positive natural selection. More interestingly, it is observed that some Eurasian haplotypes at the HYAL region show a closer relationship to the Neanderthal haplotype than to the contemporary African haplotypes, implicating recent Neanderthal introgression. We confirmed the Neanderthal introgression in HYAL region by employing a series of statistical and population genetic analyses.
Further, we examined whether the HYAL region was under positive natural selection using two published statistical tests. Both suggest that the HYAL region was under positive natural selection, and pinpoint a set of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) contributed by Neanderthal introgression as the candidate targets of positive natural selection.
We then explored the potential functional importance of Neanderthal introgression in the HYAL region. The HYAL genes attracted our attention, as they are important in hyaluronan metabolism and cellular response to UV-B irradiation. We noticed that an SNP pinpointed as a potential target for positive natural selection was located in the most conservative exon of HYAL2 gene. We suspect that this SNP (known as rs35455589) may have altered the function of HYAL2 protein, since this SNP is also associated with the risk of keloid, a dermatological disorder related to hyaluronan metabolism.
Next, we interrogated the global distribution of Neanderthal introgression at the HYAL region. It is observed that the Neanderthal introgression reaches a very high frequency in East Asian populations, which ranges from 49.4% in Japanese to 66.5% in Southern Han Chinese. The frequency of Neanderthal introgression is higher in southern East Asian populations compared to northern East Asian populations. Such evidence might suggest latitude-dependent selection, which implicates the role of UV-B intensity.
We discovered that Neanderthal introgression on chromosome 3 was under positive natural selection in East Asians. We also found that a gene (HYAL2) in the introgressive region is related to the cellular response to UV-B, and an allele from Neanderthal introgression may have altered the function of HYAL2. As such, we think it is possible that Neanderthals may have helped East Asians to adapt to sunlight.
Qiliang Ding and Ya Hu are MSc Students at the Institute of Genetics at Fudan University and Intern Students at the CAS-MPG Partner Institute of Computational Biology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Their research interest lies in revealing evolutionary history of hominids using ancient and contemporary human genomes. They are the authors of the paper “Neanderthal Introgression at Chromosome 3p21.31 Was Under Positive Natural Selection in East Asians,” which appears in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.
Molecular Biology and Evolution publishes research at the interface of molecular (including genomics) and evolutionary biology.
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Image credit: Background map via Wikimedia Commons, with annotations by the authors.
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Adapting animated films for the stage is no longer just the domain of feature films like "The Lion King" and "Shrek." Italian dance/theater troupe "eVolution" has adapted an unlikely animated short for live performance: Don Hertzfeldt's "Billy's Balloon."Add a Comment
Most of us only think about teeth when something’s wrong with them — when they come in crooked, break, or begin to rot. But take a minute to consider your teeth as the extraordinary feat of engineering they are. They concentrate and transmit the forces needed to break food, again and again, up to millions of times over a lifetime. And they do it without themselves being broken in the process — with the very same raw materials used to make the plants and animals being eaten.
Chewing is like a perpetual death match in the mouth, with plants and animals developing tough or hard tissues for protection, and teeth evolving ways to sharpen or strengthen themselves to overcome those defenses. Most living things don’t want to be eaten. They often protect themselves by reinforcing their parts to stop eaters from breaking them into small enough bits to swallow or digest. It could be a hard shell to keep a crack from starting, or tough fibers to keep one from spreading. Either way, the eater still has to eat. And that’s where teeth come in. The variety of tooth types, especially across the mammals, is extraordinary. It’s a testament to what evolution can accomplish given time, motive, and opportunity.
Lots of animals have “teeth”; sea urchins, spiders, and slugs all have hardened tissues used for food acquisition and processing. But real teeth, like yours and mine, are special. They first appeared half a billion years ago, and Nature has spent the whole time since tinkering with ways to make them better. It’s a story written in stone – the fossil record. We see the appearance of a hard, protective coating of enamel, better ways of attaching tooth to jaw, differentiation of front and back teeth, tighter fit between opposing surfaces, and a new joint for precise movements of the jaw.
The motive is endothermy; we mammals heat our bodies from within. And chewing allows us to squeeze the energy we need to fuel our furnaces. The opportunity is evolvability; very slight genetic tweaks can have dramatic effects on tooth form and function. Consider the incredible variety of different tooth types in mammals, matched so well to the foods individual species eat. A lion has sharp-crested chewing teeth, with blades opposing one another like a pair of scissors, for slicing flesh. A cow has broad, flat ones broken by thin, curved ridges, like a cheese grater, for milling grass. You and I have thick molars with rounded cusps that fit neatly into opposing basins, like a mortar and pestle, for crushing and grinding whatever it is we eat.
There can be little doubt that the diversity, abundance, and success of mammals, including us, are due, in no small measure, to our teeth. Look in a mirror, smile, and think about it.
Peter S. Ungar received his PhD in Anthropological Sciences from Stony Brook University and taught Gross Anatomy in the medical schools at Johns Hopkins and Duke before moving to the University of Arkansas, where he now serves as Distinguished Professor and Chairman of the Department of Anthropology. He has written or co-authored more than 125 scientific papers on ecology and evolution for books and journals and is the author of Teeth: A Very Short Introduction.
The Very Short Introductions (VSI) series combines a small format with authoritative analysis and big ideas for hundreds of topic areas. Written by our expert authors, these books can change the way you think about the things that interest you and are the perfect introduction to subjects you previously knew nothing about. Grow your knowledge with OUPblog and the VSI series every Friday, subscribe to Very Short Introductions articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS, and like Very Short Introductions on Facebook.
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Image credit: Gebitsdiagram Chart created with Open Dental By Jordan Sparks. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
GALAPAGOS GEORGE is the story of the famous Lonesome George, a giant tortoise who was the last of his species, lived to be one hundred years old, and became known as the rarest creature in the world. This incredible evolution story by renowned naturalist and Newbery Medal winner Jean Craighead George gives readers a glimpse of the amazing creatures inhabiting the ever-fascinating Galápagos Islands, complete with back matter that features key terms, a timeline, and further resources for research.
Here are some Common Core objectives that GALAPAGOS GEORGE can help meet:
Identify the main purpose of a text, including what the author wants to answer, explain, or describe. Use information gained from the illustrations and words in a book to demonstrate understanding of its characters, setting, or plot. Describe the overall structure of a story, including describing how the beginning introduces the story and the ending concludes the action.
And you can use the following questions to help start a specific discussion about this book or a general discussion about informational texts and/or literature:
GALAPAGOS GEORGE will be available next week!
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The Universal Story is a pattern, a rhythm all life cycles through and is made up of beginnings, middles and ends. All of nature, all plants, animals, humans are born, live and die. This cycle can loosely be broken into:
Rapid development of molecular genetics in recent decades has revolutionized our understanding of life and the natural world. Scientists in the 1970s suggested that the grey wolf might be the sole ancestor of domestic dogs, but it was only in 1997 that Carles Vilà, Peter Savolainen, Robert Wayne, and their co-authors provided the conclusive evidence on this based on the analysis of molecular genetic markers.
It is generally assumed that dogs domesticated in East Asia; however, several recent studies challenged this hypothesis. In 2013, a team of scientists showed that the alleles (i.e. different versions of the same gene) of both modern dogs and the fossilized remains from Europe are in fact shared with local wolves.
One can suppose that genes of European wolves are descended both from the animals domesticated thousands of years ago and from wild grey wolves, which might hybridize with domestic dogs for thousands of years after domestication. The role of ongoing hybridization in the evolution of dogs is not easy to infer, even with our advanced molecular methods. In Europe and the US, since at least the 20th century, the mating of non-feral dogs (even large-bodied breeds) has usually been under human control. In many tropical countries, where dogs are not controlled so tightly, grey wolves don’t exist at all.
Natia Kopaliani and her co-workers from Ilia State University, Tbilisi, Georgia, have been studying wolf-dog conflict in the Caucasus since 2007. During recent years, they collected and processed samples of both wolves and dogs from the region with molecular genetic methods. Georgia, like other countries of the Caucasus, eastern Turkey, Iran, and Central Asia, has large livestock-guarding dogs, usually called here Caucasian or Georgian shepherds, which are traditionally free-ranging, and have uncontrolled contacts with grey wolves common to the area. The vast majority of the samples in this study were taken from the shepherd dogs guarding herds of sheep in the Central part of the Greater Caucasus Mountains.
Sequencing mitochondrial DNA showed us that as many as 37% of the dogs shared maternal haplotypes with the local wolves. The proportion of wolves with recent dog ancestry, detected using microsatellite markers, was almost two times higher than that of wolves studied earlier in southern Europe, where feral dogs are still present. More surprising still was that almost the same proportion (nearly 10%) of the guarding dogs possessed the detected hybrid ancestry. These results suggest that mutual gene flow between wolves and dogs in the Caucasus (and, possibly, in other mountainous regions of West and Central Asia) is common, most likely continued for millennia, and had a substantial impact on gene pool of both the domestic and the wild Canis lupus. It does not appear that the hybridization had any negative impact on the dog features important for humans. It is probable that shepherds used to exterminate the hybrids that demonstrated undesired behavior, but that most of the dogs with recent wolf ancestry were integrated into the dog population without problems.
This study may help our understanding of the process of the domestication of dogs and some other domestic animals. Attributing the ancestry of domestic dogs to a few animals from a small area is an oversimplification of the real pattern. Indeed, some domestic lineages may expand faster than the others may. However, wherever both the wild and the domestic forms coexist, they regularly hybridize and we have no reason to think this was not the case all the time since the earliest domestication events. Hybridization may produce animals with undesirable traits, but the owners rapidly eliminate them; occasional hybridization increases effective population size and may help to avoid inbred effect. This isolated, tightly controlled way of dog breeding is a more recent development. Modern dog-keepers select the animals with well-known pedigrees and keep them away from wild animals. Nowadays, it may sound strange to allow a pet dog to interbreed with a wolf. However, the permanent intensive selection of dogs with desirable features was most likely an instrument to keep the breeds “in shape” rather than a peculiar selection of the pedigrees.
David Tarkhnishvili is from the Institute of Ecology, Ilia State University, Georgia. He is a co-author of the paper ‘Gene Flow Between Wolf and Shepherd Dog Populations in Georgia (Caucasus)‘, which appears in the Journal of Heredity.
Journal of Heredity covers organismal genetics: conservation genetics of endangered species, population structure and phylogeography, molecular evolution and speciation, molecular genetics of disease resistance in plants and animals, genetic biodiversity and relevant computer programs.
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Image credits: Both images courtesy of Natia Kopaliani, co-author of the paper.
In the reality-based community outside of Washington D.C. there is a growing fear and increasing disbelief about the failure to take climate change seriously. Many who once put their faith in science and reason have come to the depressing conclusion that we will only take action if nature slaps us silly; they increasingly see hurricanes and droughts as the only hope.
This helps to explain why two articles published recently in scientific journals garnered such attention. Their message: It may already be too late to save the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. The slap is on the way. As glaciologist Richard Alley put it, “we are now committed to global sea level rise equivalent to a permanent Hurricane Sandy storm surge.” This sea level rise of 4-16 feet may be the “new normal,” and on top of that there will still be additional Hurricane Sandy style surges. Daniel Patrick Moynihan anticipated such a sea level rise in a 1969 memo he wrote to President Nixon’s White House Counsel, John Ehrlichman: “Goodbye New York. Goodbye Washington…” He might have added, “goodbye Shanghai, London, Mumbai, and Bangkok. Goodbye South Florida and goodbye to the California coast.”
Nature’s slaps have begun and they may soon become punches, but as any parent knows, slaps do not always help. Those who reject decades of climate science will not be swayed by two new scientific papers, while those who care about climate change may come to see their actions as increasingly futile. We need to get out of this cycle of denial and depression and get on a road to recovery.
The first step to take is to recognize that climate change is the most difficult problem that humanity has ever faced. Climate change deniers, greedy corporations, and opportunistic politicians deserve all the blame they get and more, but they are not the only problem. The most difficult challenge in addressing climate change lurks in the background. Evolution did not design us to solve or even recognize this kind of problem. We have a strong bias toward dramatic movements of middle-sized objects that can be visually perceived, and climate change consists of the gradual build up in the atmosphere of an invisible, odorless, tasteless gas. We are built to respond to sudden movements of middle-sized objects in our visual fields, so action would all but be assured if the threats that climate change posed were immediate and proximate. If carbon dioxide was sickly green in color and stank to high heaven, we would have done something about it by now.
Another feature of climate change that makes it difficult for us to respond is that its causes and effects are geographically and temporally unbounded. Earth system scientists study the earth holistically and think on millennial timescales and beyond, but this perspective is foreign to most people. Most of us pay little attention to events that occur beyond national boundaries, unless they are “one-off” disasters. The idea that turning up my thermostat in New York can contribute to affecting people living in Malaysia in a thousand years is virtually beyond comprehension to most of us.
The challenge is obvious once we see the problem in this way. We need to design institutions and policies that can help us to overcome our natural frailties in addressing climate change, and we need to make the threat as immediate and sensible as possible. The presentation and rollout of the US National Climate Assessment was a welcome attempt to do this. The report’s message was that climate change is here to stay and will only get worse. Some cities and states are already starting to take action, and administration officials fanned out across the country to make sure that local opinion leaders understood what climate change means for their communities.
We also need to strengthen and create institutions that provide credible knowledge of such long-term threats. Life in a large-population, high-consumption, high-technology world brings new risks, especially when nature is starting to wake up from the relatively stable period that it has been in for the last 10,000 years. We need the kind of knowledge that will enable us to anticipate and adapt to these unprecedented challenges. This was part of the thinking behind President Lincoln’s establishing the National Academy of Sciences in 1863, and Congress’s creation of the Office of Technology Assessment in 1972 (which was shut down in 1995). The media, educational establishments, and the general public have important roles to play in supporting and creating these institutions. All of us need to become more critical consumers of information. Reports from Washington “think tanks,” for example, are often highly partisan, and yet they are still treated as having the same authority as scientific assessments. What should matter when it comes to information is credibility, not insider influence, and this should be reflected in our airwaves as well as our scientific journals.
Finally, to address climate change we need new political and legal institutions that are specifically designed to restrain our tendency towards short-sighted behavior. There are many proposals and experiments from around the world designed to support us in addressing long-term threats, including various mechanisms for representing future generations in governmental decision-making, creating an atmospheric trust, and reforms in statistical, accounting, and decision-making procedures so that they better reflect the future effects of our present actions.
Climate change is not a single problem. It presents us with a wide range of challenges that will only become more severe as time passes. One of the most important steps to take is realizing how ill-equipped we are to deal with climate change and reforming our institutions and policies accordingly, but we should not lose sight of the need to mitigate the emissions and land-use practices that are bringing it about. No matter what we do, we are in for a rough ride, but by taking simple actions at present and recommitting ourselves for the long haul, we can preserve what we most value about the world that our ancestors have given us, and provide a livable future for our descendants.
Dale Jamieson is the author of Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed — and What It Means for Our Future (Oxford University Press). He teaches Environmental Studies, Philosophy, and Law at New York University, and was formerly affiliated with the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
It is well known that many of the permanent inhabitants of caves have evolved a bizarre, convergent morphology, including loss of eyes and pigment, elongation and thinning of appendages, and other adaptations to conditions of complete darkness and scarce food. These species include the European cave salamander, or olm, studied since the time of Lamarck.
Sometimes, the extremes of morphology of cave animals strain credibility, as is the case of a springtail from a Cambodian cave, with antennae several times the length of its body.
The adaptations shown by the olm and the springtail illustrated make sense in an environment of constant darkness and scarce food.
Species with morphologies like the olm and the Cambodian cave springtail, occur in and have evolved in habitats that only share the physical feature of darkness with caves. There are seven different kinds of dark habitats that occur close to the boundary of lighted and dark habitats:
All of these habitat harbor de-pigmented and eyeless species, even though there is often abundant organic matter present, and there are strong seasonal and sometimes daily fluctuations in temperature and other environmental conditions. Except for lava tubes, none provide the allure and adventure of caves.
The first of these categories, the fauna of seepage springs and the associated groundwater, epitomizes the ecological and evolutionary conundrums these shallow subterranean habitats pose. The habitat itself consists of a mixture of rocks and leaf litter underlain by a clay layer. The habitat is relatively rich in organic matter (both dissolved and particulate) and nutrients. Essentially, these are miniature drainage basins, that typically cover a few thousand square meters, and appear to be little more than wet spots in the woods.
These seepage springs and their fauna were first described from sites on Medvednica Mountain in Croatia in 1963 by Milan Meštrov, in several papers that are largely forgotten.
What he did leave is a tongue-twisting name for the habitat—hypotelminorheic, perhaps not surprising for a French word with Greek roots first coined by a Croatian. Unlike deep caves, the hypotelminorheic is high variable, and in many places the seepage spring dries up during the summer months, and most of the water is retained in the colloidal clay. The habitat is so shallow that there are daily temperature fluctuations. In spite of all this, these seeps harbor a number of amphipod, isopod, and snail species with the characteristic long antennae and absence of eyes and pigment characteristic of the deep cave fauna.
In one case, there are enough species of one genus of amphipods (Stygobromus), that relative size of antennae can be compared, and no differences between cave and hypotelminorheic species were found. What was different among the different subterranean habitats, was body size. A repeated pattern of small animals in habitats with small dimensions (soil and the upper layer of limestone) and large animals in habitats with large dimenions (lava tubes and deep caves). The conclusion is that absence of light and habitat size, not availability or organic matter or environmental variability, drives the evolution of the convergent morphology of subterranean animals. In fact, divergence as well as convergence occurs in subterranean habitats. Cene Fišer and his colleagues from the University of Ljubljana, have shown that when three or more species of the amphipod genus Niphargus are present in a subterranean site, their morphological divergence is greater than expected by chance. The task for biologists studying the subterranean fauna is to tease out the convergent and divergent aspects of adaptation.
Imagine packing up your home, leaving Earth and setting out to travel across space to colonise a new planet.
The journey will take so long you’ll be put into a cryptobiotic state. But there is absolutely nothing to fear: You’re on sleek new spaceship, looked after by a team of well-programmed robots, and everything has been carefully thought through. When you finally arrive at Nova Mundi (it only takes 199 years to get there), you’ll be woken up to a delicious breakfast and the start of a whole new and wonderful life.
It sounds great, doesn’t it?
And so it is in Cakes in Space by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre. Astra and her family are on their way to their new home but – you’ve guessed it – something goes wrong. Astra wakes from her suspended sleep, and feeling peckish goes off in search of a chocolate biscuit.
The Nom-O-Tron (a highly developed version of Star Trek’s Replicator) satisfies Astra’s request, but when she’s tempted to ask for something a little more outlandish (how many times have you seen the word “Ultimate” used to describe a dish?) something goes awry. Soon Astra is hurtling through space surrounded by cakes which have learned to evolve. Cakes which are fed up of being eaten themselves. Cakes which have developed a killer instinct.
Will Astra be able to save her family from the Ravenous Crispy Slices and Ferocious Fruit Cakes stalking the spaceship’s corridors? How much more complicated will things get when a second front opens up and her spaceship is raided by alien life forms known as Poglites, desperately searching for their holy grail, that technology which they haven’t been able to master: SPOONS.
Yes, this is a totally surreal and deliciously outrageous story of friendship, ingenuity and hundreds and thousands.
It’s fast-moving, exciting, just ever so slightly scary in that enjoyably adrenalin pumping way and above all it’s FUNNY! Add into the mix some genuinely beautiful writing (sometimes young fiction is all about the plot and the language – especially for an adult reading it aloud – can be somewhat unremarkable, but Reeve at times writes sentences which I found myself wanting to copy out), a plot which will enthral both boys and girls of a wide age range, and the subtle inclusion of some philosophically meatier issues (the consequences of greedy desire, the demonisation of that which we don’t know and can’t name) and you’ve got yourself a remarkable book.
McIntyre’s illustrations are a crazy but perfect mix of 1950s brave new world sleekness and outrageous sponge-and-icing based fantasy. I’m delighted that Astra’s family are mixed race (this isn’t mentioned in the text at all, but how great to see some diversity just as-is, without it being an issue in the book).
The top-notch content of Cakes in Space is matched by a stunningly produced physical book. Like last year’s Reeve and McIntyre production, Oliver and the Seawigs, this is first being published as a small hardback in pleasingly chunky, strokingly hand-holdable format. Everything about the book is appealing.
After indulging in a solo read, I read this book aloud to both girls over a couple of days last week. Before we’d even finished the books my girls were off to raid the cutlery draw in the kitchen for highly prized spoons to create a collection of which any Poglite would be proud.
Carefully curated, they labelled every spoon with where it had been found in the galaxy, its rarity and its monetary value (I can see how this could develop into a Top Trumps game…)
Spoons are one thing, but cake is another, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to host our own mini Cakes in Space party. We baked a host of fairy cakes and then turned them into KILLER CAKES…
Lollies made great eyes on stalks…
… as did Maltesers and Aero balls.
We had fun making teeth out of snapped white chocolate buttons, tictacs and rice paper snipped to look like rows of sharp teeth.
We also had some Ferocious Florentines and Sinister Swiss Rolls (helped along with edible eyes).
Other characters from the book were also present: The Nameless Horror was a big bowl of wobbly jelly dyed black with food colouring and with licorice shoelaces reaching out across the table, and jars of purple gloop (thinned down Angel Delight, again dyed to give a good purple colour) with gummy snakes in them made perfect Poglite snacks. Alas these were guzzled before I got to take a photo!
Preparing for the party was at least as much fun as the party itself…
Great music for a Cakes in Space party includes:
Other activities which would make for a great Cakes in Space party include:
We’ve all heard of Death by Chocolate, but what’s the nearest you’ve come to being killed by a cake?
Disclosure: I received a free review copy of Cakes in Space from the publishers.
Title: Galapagos George Written By: Jean Craighead George Paintings By: Wendell Minor Published By: Harper, 2014. Themes/Topics: Galapagos Islands, giant tortoise, extinction Suitable for ages: 7-11 Opening: This is a story that took so long to happen that only the stars were present at the … Continue readingAdd a Comment
Each year the Royal Society awards a prize to the best book that communicates science to young people with the aim of inspiring young people to read about science. In the run up to the announcement of the winner of The Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize in the middle of November, I’ll be reviewing the books which have made the shortlist, and trying out science experiments and investigating the world with M and J in ways which stem from the books in question.
Have you ever thought how your genes could get you out of prison?
Or what the consequences might be if a company owned and could make money out of one of your own genes?
How would you know if you were a clone?
Why might knowing something about junk DNA be important if you’re running an exclusive restaurant with slightly dodgy practices?
Answers to these and many other intriguing questions are to be found in this accessible introduction to genetics, pitched at the 9-11 crowd. Arbuthnott does a great job of showing how relevant a knowledge of genetics is, whether in helping us to understand issues in the news (e.g. ‘Cancer gene test ‘would save lives’‘) or understanding why we are partly but not entirely like our parents. What makes you YOU? covers key scientists in the past history of genetics and crucial stages in its development as a science, including the race to discover what DNA looked like, the Human Genome Project, and Dolly the Sheep.
Arbuthnott portrays the excitement and potential in genetic research very well, leaving young readers feeling that this is far from a dry science; there are many ethical issues which make the discussion of the facts seem more relevant and real to young readers. Whilst on the whole I felt the author did a good job of balancing concerns with opportunities, I was sorry that in the discussion about genetically modified plants no mention was made of businesses ability to control supply to food stock, by creating plants which don’t reproduce, leaving farmers dependent on buying new seed from the business.
A timeline of discoveries, a very helpful list of resources for further study, a glossary and an index all make this a really useful book. Importantly, not only does the book contain interesting and exciting information, it also looks attractive and engaging. Lots of full bleed brightly coloured pages, and the use of cartoony characters make the book immediately approachable and funny – a world away from a dry dull school textbook.
What makes you YOU? provides a clear and enjoyable introduction to understanding DNA and many of the issues surrounding genetic research, perfect not only for learning about this branch of science, but also for generating discussion.
Extracting DNA is what the kids wanted to try after sharing What makes you YOU?. In the interest of scientific exploration we tried two different techniques to see which one we found easier and which gave the best results.
What you’ll need:
We learned this method for extracting DNA from Exploratopia by Pat Murphy, Ellen Macaulay and the staff of the Exploratorium. Unfortunately it’s out of print now, but it is definitely worth tracking down a copy if you are interested in doing experiments at home.
This second method is detailed in What makes you YOU? and involves strawberries, fresh pineapple, warm water and ice as well as washing-up liquid and salt. It also calls for methylated spirits but we swapped this for surgical spirit, as that’s what we had to hand.
This method is a little more involved than the first method but is a all round sensory experience: There are lots of strong smells (from crushed strawberries and puréed pineapple, as well as the surgical spirit), colours make it visually very appealing (perhaps this is why methylated spirits are called for in the original recipe as the purple of the meths adds another dimension) and there is also lots to feel, from the strange sensation of squishing the strawberries by hand, through to the different temperatures of the warm water in which the DNA-extracting-mix gently cooks followed by the ice water in which it cools down.
Look! Strawberry DNA!
Both methods were fun to try. We liked the first method because the result was seeing globs of our very own DNA, but the second method was a much more stimulating process, appealing to all the senses. Indeed this DNA extraction recipe alone makes it worthwhile seeking out a copy of What makes you YOU?.
Whilst extracting DNA we listened to:
The DNA song
Other activities which might go well with reading What makes you YOU? include:
What do you and your family look for in science books to really hook you in? Do share some examples of science books which you’ve especially enjoyed over the years.
Disclosure: I received a free review copy of What makes you YOU? from the Royal Society.
A pop-up book covering a wealth of ground, How The World Works is a tremendous introduction to topics as diverse as the solar system, evolution, plate tectonics, the water cycle, weather systems, photosynthesis and food chains.
Each double page spread covers one theme and explores it using exciting illustrations, illuminating paper engineering and and array of both key and intriguing facts presented in inviting, bite-sized portions. The illustrations have the rich colours and boldness you often see with Barefoot Books (though this is actually published by Templar). The short sections of text make this an undaunting book for young independent readers.
As well of plenty of flaps and tabs, there are lots of instances where the paper engineering really adds to your understanding of the topic under discussion. For example the big bang explosion is a brilliantly executed bit of fold out paper – simple, but very effective as it mimics an explosion. How the continents have drifted over time is beautifully illustrated with a flip book – by flipping the pages we can actually see the continents drifting from the supercontinent Pangaea about 200 million years ago to their current location.
Again, the paper engineering is put to exceptional use to illustrate what happens at different types of plate boundary; Andy Mansfield, the brains behind the pop-up aspect of this book, has created paper tricks that are not only great fun but, but informative and meaningful.
This book contains a subtle but consistent message about how we as humans are having an impact on the earth and what the consequences of our actions will be. In the section on carbon there are tips about how we can reduce our carbon footprint, whilst the pages devoted to how plants work draw attention to the problems caused by deforestation. In the discussion of ocean currents and tides we’re introduced to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, “an area of plastic rubbish twice the size of Texas” floating in the Pacific ocean, whilst when exploring the the planets, the large quantity of space junk orbiting the earth is highlighted. Not only does this book tell us how the world works, it also makes us think about how it’s beginning to break down.Display Comments Add a Comment
Neandertal communication must have been different from modern language. To repeat a point made often in this book, Neandertals were not a stage of evolution that preceded modern humans. They were a distinct population that had a separate evolutionary history for several hundred thousand years, during which time they evolved a number of derived characteristics not shared with Homo sapiens sapiens. At the same time, a continent away, our ancestors were evolving as well. Undoubtedly both Neandertals and Homo sapiens sapiens continued to share many characteristics that each retained from their common ancestor, including characteristics of communication. To put it another way, the only features that we can confidently assign to both Neandertals and Homo sapiens sapiens are features inherited from Homo heidelbergensis. If Homo heidelbergensis communicated via modern style words and modern syntax, then we can safely attribute these to Neandertals as well. Most scholars find this highly unlikely, largely because Homo heidelbergensis brains were slightly smaller than ours and smaller than Neandertals’, but also because the archaeological record of Homo heidelbergensis is much less ‘modern’ than either ours or Neandertals’. Thus, we must conclude that Neandertal communication had evolved along its own path, and that this path may have been quite different from the one followed by our ancestors. The result must have been a difference far greater than the difference between Chinese and English, or indeed between any pair of human languages. Specifying just how Neandertal communication differed from ours may be impossible, at least at our current level of understanding. But we can attempt to set out general features of Neandertal communication based on what we know from the comparative, fossil, and archaeological records.
As we have tried to show in previous chapters, the paleoanthropological record of Neandertals suggests that they relied heavily on two styles of thinking – expert cognition and embodied social cognition. These, at least, are the cognitive styles that best encompass what we know of Neandertal daily life. And they do carry implications for communication. Neandertals were expert stone knappers, relied on detailed knowledge of landscape, and a large body of hunting tactics. It is possible that all of this knowledge existed as alinguistic motor procedures learned through observation, failure, and repetition. We just think it unlikely. If an experienced knapper could focus the attention of a novice using words it would be easier to learn Levallois. Even more useful would be labels for features of the landscape, and perhaps even routes, enabling Neandertal hunters to refer to any location in their territories. Such labels would almost have been required if widely dispersed foraging groups needed to congregate at certain places (e.g., La Cotte). And most critical of all, in a natural selection sense, would be an ability to indicate a hunting tactic prior to execution. These labels must have been words of some kind. We suspect that Neandertal words were always embedded in a rich social and environmental context that included gesturing (e.g., pointing) and emotionally laden tones of voice, much as most human vocal communication is similarly embedded, a feature of communication probably inherited from Homo heidelbergensis.
At the risk of crawling even further out on a limb than the two of us usually go, we make the following suggestions about Neandertal communication:
1) Neandertals had speech. Their expanded Broca’s area in the brain, and their possession of a human FOXP2 gene both suggest this. Neandertal speech was probably based on a large (perhaps huge) vocabulary – words for places, routes, techniques, individuals, and emotions. We have shown that Neandertal expertise was largeAdd a Comment
The search for human origins is a fascinating story – from the Middle Ages, when questions of the earth’s antiquity first began to arise, through to the latest genetic discoveries that show the interrelatedness of all living creatures. Central to the story is the part played by fossils – first, in establishing the age of the Earth; then, following Darwin, in the pursuit of possible ‘Missing Links’ that would establish whether or not humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor. John Reader’s passion for this quest – palaeoanthropology – began in the 1960s when he reported for Life Magazine on Richard Leakey’s first fossil-hunting expedition to the badlands of East Turkana, in Kenya. Drawing on both historic and recent research, he tells the fascinating story of the science as it has developed from the activities of a few dedicated individuals, into the rigorous multidisciplinary work of today.
In these videos, John Reader, author of Missing Links: In Search of Human Origins talks about the treasure hunt that is the search for the missing link.
Is it possible to discover the missing link?
What is it like finding the remains of an ancient pre-humanoid?
Can scientists draw firm conclusions from fossil finds?
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John Reader is Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology, University College London. A writer and photographer with more than fifty years of professional experience, his work has included contributions to major international publications, television documentaries and a number of books, including including The Untold History of the Potato, Africa, Pyramids of Life with Harvey Croze, and Rise of Life. His latest book, Missing Links: In Search of Human Origins, published in October 2011. John Reader has previously written about Australopithecus sediba for OUPblog.
Today is Darwin’s birthday. It’s doubtful that any scientist would deny Darwin’s importance, that his work provides the field of biology with its core structure, by providing a beautiful, powerful mechanism to explain the diversity of form and function that we see all around us in the living world. But being of importance to one’s field is only one way we judge a scientist’s contributions. There is also the matter of how their work has changed lives all over the world, even of those who don’t know or necessarily care about their accomplishments. What has Darwin done for his fellow human beings? Why should they care about what he showed us, or want to learn what he had to teach?
Understanding evolution is challenging, for many reasons. We often point to the religious questions raised by his work as the cause of these difficulties, but there are many more. No creature decides to change their DNA, nor can a species foresee what they should become to survive, but it sure seems like they do. Evolution provides such elegant solutions to incredibly complex problems, it’s hard to see them as the product of random variation and selection. Even for people who lack religious convictions that make evolution discomforting, it’s hard to grasp the mechanisms of evolution. This difficulty arises out of developmental constraints that lead us to look for centralized, intentional agents when we make causal attributions. It comes out of the challenges inherent in altering our conceptions of the world and replacing one belief system with another, and out of the emotional reaction we have to facing the reality that we are not special or superior to our biological cousins, nor are we in control of the fate of our species in generations to come.
If we’re going to ask people to expend the time and effort it requires to wrap their heads around a idea like biological evolution, it seems as though there ought to be a really big payoff for all that work. So, what does learning about evolution get us?
We’ve asked this question to quite a few teachers, biologists, philosophers, and educational researchers along the course of several projects, the most extensive and recent being the one that led to the edited volume OUP will be putting out soon on teaching and learning about evolution. The reaction is almost always the same. First, there is the pause, as they blink, startled that anyone would be asking such a thing. Often they call upon evolution’s importance to science, and its beauty and elegance — who wouldn’t want to spend their time contemplating that? But if pushed back, and asked what practical value they could point to that would make the struggle of mastering these complex ideas worthwhile, they have a hard time coming up with an answer. The most common responses revolve around the (mis)use of antibiotics, and that people need to know that taking these drugs too often could cause real long-term harm. The second most popular argument is that people should understand the importance of biodiversity, how fragile species become when their gene pool dwindles and ecological balances are disrupted, and that being a part of nature — not above it — comes with responsibiliAdd a Comment
|Alan Alda, My Friend|
In May 2000 I began a post-doctoral position in the Mathematics Department at Kansas State University. Shortly after I arrived I learned of a conference for homeschoolers to be held in Wichita, the state’s largest city. Since that was a short drive from my home, and since anything related to public education in Kansas had relevance to my new job, I decided, on a whim, to attend.
You might recall that Kansas was then embroiled in a battle over state science standards. A politically conservative school board had made a number of changes to existing standards, including the virtual elimination of evolution and the Big Bang. This was very much on the mind of my fellow conference attendees, most of whom were homeschooling for specifically religious reasons. The conference keynoters all hailed form Answers in Genesis, an advocacy group that endorses creationism.
As a politically liberal mathematician who accepted the scientific consensus on evolution, this was all new to me. Curious to learn more, I struck up conversations with other audience members and participated in Q&A sessions whenever I could. The Wichita conference became the first of many that I attended over the next decade. This immersion in the creationist subculture taught me a few things about America’s hostility to evolution.
Some of what I learned was predictable. Though my conversation partners typically spoke with great confidence on a variety of scientific topics, it was rare that they really understood much about the theory they so despised. For me this problem was especially acute when they discussed mathematics. I lost track of how many times folks would tell me that probability theory refuted evolution, and then defend their view with absurd calculations bearing no resemblance to reality. If you are possessed of even a rudimentary understanding of basic science, then you quickly realize the extent to which they have neglected their homework.
Also unsurprising was the insularity I found. For many of the people I met, evangelical Christianity represented a tiny island of righteousness adrift in a sea of secular evil. At virtually every conference one or more speakers would warn of the seductions of “the world’s” wisdom, which is to say the world outside of their own tiny enclave. As they saw it, evolution was just one tool among many in the arsenal of God’s enemies.
But I also learned some things that surprised me. On many occasions I asked people the blunt question, “What do you find so objectionable about evolution?” Never once did anyone reply, “It is contrary to the Bible.” Conflicts with Scripture were certainly an issue, and these concerns arose almost inevitably if the conversation persisted long enough. They were never the paramount concern, however. It is not as though they thought evolution was an intriguing idea, but felt honor bound to reject it because the Bible forced them to. Instead, they flatly despised evolution, usually for reasons having nothing to do with the Bible.
They were horrified, for example, by the savagery and waste entailed by the evolutionary process. You can imagine how it looks to them to suggest that a God of love and justice, who declares his creation to be “very good,” would employ a method of creation which rewards any behavior, no matter how cruel or sadistic, so long as it inserts your genes into the next generation.
And what are we to make of humanity’s significance in Darwin’s world? Tradition teaches we are the pinnacle of creation, unique among the animals for being created in God’s image. Science tells a different story, one in which we are just an incidenAdd a Comment
I had all kinds of ideas about what I was going to write about for today. Science and art. A term called The Beholder's Share. I was going to tell you about a great trip I had in Maine, where I spoke to librarians about writing non-fiction. I was going to show you a cool NPR story about the wind at sea looking like a Van Gogh sky. But then I opened up the New York Times Monday morning and saw this:
Pseudoscience and Tennessee’s Classrooms
Please read it. I'll wait. I can't say it any better than that because all I want to do is scream. Loudly.
But I will say this, once again, as I've said many times and I think as I showed in CHARLES AND EMMA: Science and faith can co-exist. It does not have to be either or. But science is science and religion is religion. Evolution really happens. Smart theologians, religious people, clerics, rabbis, priests, ministers have NO PROBLEM WITH EVOLUTION. (I guess I am screaming.)
Our children deserve to be taught the truth in school. Period, the end.
Global warming really is happening. Smart politicians know that. Teaching our children the truth about global warming leaves open the possibility of saving our earth. Not teaching them the truth closes that possibility.
I hate conflict and controversy. I got very little of it, thank goodness, when Charles And Emma came out. I think because their relationship shows how science and religion can co-exist in peace and harmony with understanding. That's beautiful.
What's happening in Tennessee and elsewhere is not beautiful. It's UGLY. And stupid. I'm going to let Spencer Tracy say it for me: Inherit The Wind