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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: evolution, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 81
1. Darwinism as religion: what literature tells us about evolution

From the publication of the Origin, Darwin enthusiasts have been building a kind of secular religion based on its ideas, particularly on the dark world without ultimate meaning implied by the central mechanism of natural selection.

The post Darwinism as religion: what literature tells us about evolution appeared first on OUPblog.

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2. Against narrowness in philosophy

If you asked many people today, they would say that one of the limitations of analytic philosophy is its narrowness. Whereas in previous centuries philosophers took on projects of broad scope, today’s philosophers typically deal with smaller issues.

The post Against narrowness in philosophy appeared first on OUPblog.

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3. The evolution of evolution

How did it come to this? How was evolution transformed from a scientific principle of human-as-animal to a contentious policy battle concerning children’s education? From the mid-19th century to today, evolution has been in a huge tug-of-war as to what it meant and who, politically speaking, got to claim it.

The post The evolution of evolution appeared first on OUPblog.

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4. How does chemistry shape evolution?

When people think of evolution, many reflect on the concept as an operation filled with endless random possibilities–a process that arrives at advantageous traits by chance. But is the course of evolution actually random? In A World from Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life, Ben McFarland argues that an understanding of chemistry can both explain and predict the course of evolution.

The post How does chemistry shape evolution? appeared first on OUPblog.

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5. 10 surprising facts about spiders

Arachnophobia, an irrational fear of spiders, affects millions of people around the world. This is not helped by popular culture portraying them as scary, deadly creatures who could creep up on you, and bite you, when you least expect it. They also do look pretty creepy... We've found the following ten facts about these misunderstood creatures.

The post 10 surprising facts about spiders appeared first on OUPblog.

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6. Mentalization and borderline personality disorder (part two)

Sigmund Karterud is a pioneer of group therapy for borderline personality disorders. He focuses on mentalization: our ability to understand ourselves and other people in terms of mental phenomena – beliefs, feelings, wishes, and hopes.

The post Mentalization and borderline personality disorder (part two) appeared first on OUPblog.

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7. Galapagos George – Perfect Picture Book Friday

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 reading

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8. What makes you You? A Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize shortlistee

royalsocietyprizebuttonEach 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.

7277405-MFirst up is What makes you YOU? by Gill Arbuthnott , illustrated by Marc Mones.

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.

Method 1: Extracting your own DNA

What you’ll need:


  • A tablespoon
  • Salt
  • A measuring jug
  • Water
  • Washing-up liquid
  • A small bowl
  • A teaspoon
  • A small clean cup
  • A tall and narrow jar (or a test tube)
  • Clingfilm or a stopper/lid
  • A stirrer eg a plastic straw
  • Rubbing alcohol (surgical spirit – in the UK you can buy this easily in a chemists such as Boots)
  • dna4

  • 1. Dissolve 1 tablespoon of salt in 250ml of water to create a salt solution.
  • 2. Dilute the washing-up liquid by mixing 1 tbsp of washing-up liquid with 3 tbsp of water in your small bowl. We’ll call this the soap solution.
  • 3. Swish 1 teaspoon of tap water around in your mouth vigorously for at least 30 seconds. Spit this into the small cup. We’ll call this spit water.
  • 4. Put 1/4 teaspoon of your salt solution into your tall jar/test tube.
  • 5. Pour your spit water from the cub into the tall tar/test tube.
  • 6. Add 1/4 teaspoon of your soap solution to the test tube.
  • 7. Cover the top of your tall jar/test tube either with clingfilm/a stopper/a lid and gently turn the jar almost upside down several times to mix everything together. Avoid making any bubbles.
  • 8. Take the covering off the jar and dribble 1 teaspoon of surgical spirit down the side of the tall jar/test tube. Watch for the surgical spirit forming a layer on top of the spitwater/salt solution/soap solution mix.
  • 9. You should now see a white stringy layer forming between the two layers – this is your DNA (and a few proteins, but mostly it’s your DNA)
  • 10. You can use the stirrer to pull out the white goop to get a closer look at your DNA.
  • dna5.jpg

    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.

    Method 2: Extracting strawberry DNA

    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:

  • GENEticS, a rap by Oort Kuiper
  • The DNA song

  • The Galaxy DNA song By Eric Idle and John Du Prez (a re-worked Monty Python song)

  • Other activities which might go well with reading What makes you YOU? include:

  • Checking out this list of children’s books I previously compiled on genetics and DNA – with something for everyone no matter what their age.
  • Listening to an interview with Gill Arbuthnott
  • Watching this animation which helps explain how Mendel’s pea plants helped us understand genetics
  • 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.

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    9. The evolution of life

    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?

    Your Score:  

    Your Ranking:  

    Headline image credit: HINGOLGADH. Photo by Kalpeshzala59. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

    The post The evolution of life appeared first on OUPblog.

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    10. Cinderella science

    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).

    The post Cinderella science appeared first on OUPblog.

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    11. The dangers of evolution denial

    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).

    The post The dangers of evolution denial appeared first on OUPblog.

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    12. A Q&A with the Editor of Environmental Epigenetics

    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. […]

    The post A Q&A with the Editor of Environmental Epigenetics appeared first on OUPblog.

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    13. Looking forward to ESEB 2015

    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 Darwin

    The post Looking forward to ESEB 2015 appeared first on OUPblog.

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    14. The hidden side of natural selection

    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.

    The post The hidden side of natural selection appeared first on OUPblog.

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    15. Evolution: Some difficult problems

    Two other major and largely unsolved problems in evolution, at the opposite extremes of the history of life, are the origin of the basic features of living cells and the origin of human consciousness. In contrast to the questions we have just been discussing, these are unique events in the history of life.

    The post Evolution: Some difficult problems appeared first on OUPblog.

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    16. Mentalizing in groups

    ‘Mentalizing’ is the new word for making sense of oneself, others, and intersubjective transactions in terms of inner motivations. It can be fast and intuitive (implicit mentalizing), as in most informal and routine interactions, or slow and elaborate (explicit mentalizing), when one steps back to indulge in reflective thinking. “Why did she say that?” The thought is such an integral part of being human that it is most often taken for granted. Yet it is an evolutionary achievement.

    The post Mentalizing in groups appeared first on OUPblog.

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    17. Did human grammar(s) evolve?

    In order to hypothesize about the evolutionary origins of grammar, it is essential to rely on some theory or model of human grammars. Interestingly, scholars engaged in the theoretical study of grammar (syntacticians), particularly those working within the influential framework associated with linguist Noam Chomsky, have been reluctant to consider a gradualist, selection-based approach to grammar.

    The post Did human grammar(s) evolve? appeared first on OUPblog.

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    18. Wet

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    19. Thinking more about our teeth

    vsi banner

    By Peter S. Ungar

    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

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    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.

    Galapagos George

    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:

    1. How does a reader determine the genre of a particular book? What characteristics apply to GALAPAGOS GEORGE? RI.2.5, RL.2.3
    2. What elements of a book help the reader determine the main idea? What details support the main idea? RI.2.2, RL.2.2
    3. How do the illustrations contribute to the text (characters, setting, and plot)? RI.2.7, RL.2.7

    GALAPAGOS GEORGE will be available next week!


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    21. Transformation and The Universal Story: How Your Inner Stories Influence Your Choices & Decisions in Life

    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:

    • Comfort and Separation
    • Expansion and Struggle
    • Transformation and Triumph
    In the place of comfort, change and evolution come only as quickly as the slowest member of the group. To expand ourselves and the world around us, we are asked to separate from what is known and familiar and comfortable (relatively speaking) to change, toss off all that no longer serves us and triumph for the greatest good.

    Always in the past, those who successfully passed through the universal markers in life helped to evolve the planet, our species, life around us. Now, many are expanding without reaching a triumphant end. The expansion in the middle creates enormous stress, challenges, obstacles, antagonists which ultimately leads to the death of the old and opens up space for the new. Without letting go and the subsequent release the pressure, tension builds.

    Can one move from beginning to triumph without passing through the deadly middle? Sure. Anyone who has learned all the life lessons needed to evolve move effortlessly from one triumph to the next.

    More typically, often, before the true road appears, we suffer failure, brokenness, fear, emptiness, and alienation and loss. The only way to re-creation lies through death. First, before we can triumph, the repetitious stories we tell ourselves that limit and hold us back must be destroyed.

    We all love stories. Most of us are unaware of the influence the stories we tell ourselves have on the choices and decisions we make in our lives. Understanding the significance of our inner stories releases negative emotions. Connect to new stories that inspire and uplift rather than burden and depress our energy. Once released from the power old stories hold over us, we are free to create peace in every moment of our lives.

    Most of us are ruled by our egos which perpetuate stories in our minds that keep us off-balance, angry, frustrated, blaming, sad, fearful, unworthy, striving, grabbing, hurting and locked in dark emotions. To move beyond the limiting thoughts and behaviors and stories we tell ourselves and clear the way to triumph, first we're slapped in the face, slammed to our knees, betrayed, abandoned, ostracized, demoralized and confronted with a moment when we become aware of life's deeper meaning and our place in the world. Life takes us by the shoulders and shakes us until we sees life and ourselves as we really are and jolts us into a new acceptance, one in which transformation flourishes.

    Life is about each of surrendering our own personal power to an authority outside ourselves either willingly or by force in exchange for comfort, and then being confronted with challenges that force us to reclaim our own personal power through learning, awakening and consciousness. The moment consciousness slays the ego, we seize back our own power and instantaneously our behavior and thoughts and beliefs and the stories in our mind begin to transform.

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    22. Gene flow between wolves and dogs

    By David Tarkhnishvili

    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.

    81_suba_svaneti (1)

    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.

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    23. Climate change and our evolutionary weaknesses

    By Dale Jamieson

    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.”

    Photo by NASA. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

    Photo by NASA. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

    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.

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    24. Living in the dark

    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.

    This photo, by Gregor Aljančič, Laboratory Tular, Slovenia, has been used with permission.
    This photo, by Gregor Aljančič, Laboratory Tular, Slovenia, has been used with permission.

    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.

    This photo, by Louis Deharveng, Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, has been used with permission.
    This photo, by Louis Deharveng, Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, has been used with permission.

    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:

    • Extremely shallow ground water only a few centimeters underground that emerges in very small seepage springs
    • The underflow of rivers
    • The cracks and tiny solution tubes at the top of limestone deposits
    • The cracks and crevices in rocks
    • Shallow aquifers created by the precipitation of calcium carbonate in arid conditions
    • The soil
    • Lava tubes, which unlike limestone caves, always form a few meters from the surface.

    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.

    This photo, by William K. Jones, Karst Waters Institute, Leesburg, VA, has been used with permission.
    This photo, by William K. Jones, Karst Waters Institute, Leesburg, VA, has been used with permission.

    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.

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    25. Cakes in space by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre

    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?

    cakesinspacecoverAnd 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.

    Image: Sarah McIntyre. Please click on the image to be taken to the original blog post - well worth reading!

    Image: Sarah McIntyre. Please click on the image to be taken to the original blog post – well worth reading!

    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:

  • Cake by Mindy Hester & The Time Outs – heavily influenced by George Michael’s Faith
  • Peggy Seeger with Ewan MacColl, “The Space Girl’s Song”
  • I like Pie, I like Cake by the Four Clefs
  • To the Moon by the Mighty Buzzniks
  • Man in the Moon by The Full English. This comes from the album Sarah McIntyre listened to a lot whilst illustrating Cakes in Space.
  • Crunch munchy honey cakes by The Wiggles… not everyone’s cup of tea but it is sort of earwormy…
  • Other activities which would make for a great Cakes in Space party include:

  • COSTUMES! Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve have the most amazing Cakes in Space costumes (you can see them here), but if you want some inspiration for your own costumes you could try these: Using a bucket and plastic tray to create an astronaut costume as per Spoonful, how to create a papier-mâché helmet on StitchCraftCreations, a Pinterest board dedicated to cake costumes.
  • ROBOTS! I’d pile a load of “junk” from the recycling bin on the table and let the kids loose on designing and building their own robots or spaceships. NurtureStore has some ideas to get you going.
  • SLEEPING PODS! For the grown ups at the party if no-one else… You could use large cardboard boxes painted silver lined with duvets, and with the lids cut out and replaced with something see-through, with bottle tops/lids stuck on for the various buttons… you get the idea!
  • 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.

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