Life Sciences

It's another Dawkins question! Why do cave-dwellers lose their eyes? They’re useless, but are they harmful? Costly to make? Or eroded by rain of uncorrected mutations? I thought I'd already addressed this in a blog post long ago, but I searched, and I didn't -- it was my inaugural column in sadly defunct Seed magazine, way back in the paleolithic, I think. Fortunately, I still have the copy I sent in to the editor, so I resurrect it here. Degeneration and developmentIt’s not disuse that leads to loss of organs in evolution, but competitive genetic interactions Reduced or degenerate organs,…
But we have to be clear that it is only a hypothesis at this point. I was reading about domestication syndrome (DS) -- selecting animals for domestication has a whole collection of secondary traits that come along for the ride, in addition to tameness. We are selecting for animals that tolerate the presence of humans, but in addition, we get these other traits, like floppy ears, patchy coat color, shortened faces, etc.; the best known work in this area is by Belyaev (YouTube documentary to get you up to speed) who selected silver foxes for domesticity, and got friendly foxes who also had all…
I think the engineers are just trying to wind me up, again. Joe Felsenstein tackles a paper published in an applied physics journal that redefines evolution and tries to claim that changes in aircraft design are a good model for evolution. It's a terrible premise, but also, the execution is awful. But permit me a curmudgeonly point: This paper would have been rejected in any evolutionary biology journal. Most of its central citations to biological allometry are to 1980s papers on allometry that failed to take the the phylogeny of the organisms into account. The points plotted in those old…
Brandy Velten (doctoral student) and Dr. Kenneth Welch (Comparative Physiologist) from the University of Toronto wanted to know whether birds with very different speeds at which they flaps their wings (i.e. wingbeat frequencies) had correspondingly varying types of myosin proteins in their muscles. Their findings were published in the American Journal of Physiology last month. In their study they compared ruby-throated hummingbirds and zebra finches which reportedly have some of the highest wingbeat frequencies (20-60Hz). As you can imagine, their flight muscles are made up of almost…
Over at The New York Times, Gary Gutting has an interview with philosopher Michael Ruse. It is part of a series on philosophy and religion. There are several interesting nuggets in the interview, but I just want to discuss this one: G.G.: Do you think that evolution lends support to the atheistic argument from evil: that it makes no sense to think that an all-good, all-powerful God would have used so wasteful and brutal a process as evolution to create living things? M.R.: Although in some philosophy of religion circles it is now thought that we can counter the argument from evil, I don't…
As it happens, the previous post was mostly a digression from what I really wanted to discuss. The set-up here is that back in 2007, philosopher Mary Midgley published a pamphlet discussing creationism, intelligent design, education, and various related topics. Philosopher Nicholas Everitt has just published a critical review (subscription required) of Midgley's pamphlet. Glenn Branch has now done three posts mostly criticizing Everitt: Part One, Part Two, Part Three. That's the set-up. There is just one aspect of all of this I want to address. You see, in addition to her claims that the…
Image of a tick stealing a meal from: www2.outdoorchannel.com Ticks are blood-sucking arthropods that can act as vectors for various diseases in both animals and humans. A recent article published in Frontiers in Zoology summarizes findings that suggest ticks may also be considered venomous ectoparasites. For example, Ixodes holocyclus is a species of Australian tick whose saliva can induce paralysis in humans and animals. According to the new article, about 8% of known tick species can induce paralysis. Ornithodoros savignyi ticks even secrete a lethal salivary toxin (for mice at least).…
  Image of Biwa salmon from the Lake Biwa Museum (http://www.lbm.go.jp/english/exhibits/aquarium.html) It is not surprising that Biwa salmon (image above), a subspecies of Oncorhyncus masou, do not adapt to seawater very well after having been landlocked in Lake Biwa, Japan for the last 500,000 years or so.  Researchers from Hokkaido University and Shiga Prefecture Fishery Experiment Station in Japan wanted to know what caused the salmon to lose their ability to thrive in salt water. In a new paper published in the American Journal of Physiology they compared the sodium/potassium pumps in…
I’ll admit it: I’m a bit of a beer snob. I make no bones about it, I like my beer, but I also like it to be good beer, and, let’s face it, beer brewed by large industrial breweries seldom fits the bill. To me, most of the beer out being sold in the U.S., particularly beer made by Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors can easily be likened to cold piss from horses with kidney disease (you need protein to get beer foam, you know), only without the taste. I have to be mighty desperate and thirsty before I will partake of such swill. I will admit that there is one exception, namely Blue Moon, which is…
(Some of my kids watching sheep mothering their babies) Over the last decade a whole lot of babies have been born on my farm or brought home to it. We have had calves, chicks, kids (goat), kids (human), ducklings, goslings, kits and lambs. One of the most fascinating revelations of this is just how variable the instinct for parenting is among animals. Among closely related goats, for example, we have had among our best mothers, and our single worst one, a doe so dim that she would stand there screaming for her baby but refuse to move any closer to the baby who was screaming just as…
Extremophiles are fun! Basically, they're the biggest, smallest, hardiest and definitely the oddest bunch of beasties to be found anywhere on this planet. The Palumbi father and son team -- one scientist and one writer -- bring us this fun little book on the extremophiles of the sea. And literally, the book covers all the various sea creatures from the oldest to the smallest, to the ones that live in scalding hot conditions to those that live in the coldest conditions, so cold that the blood of normal creatures would freeze. We see the ones with the craziest migration patterns, the oddest…
Day 3 of the Experimental Biology meeting was arguably one of the most exciting for comparative physiology. Here are the highlights from Monday: Morning Seminars: Birgitte McDonald from Aarhus University, Denmark presented, "Deep-diving sea lions exhibit extreme bradycardia in long-duration dives." Birgitte and Dr. Paul Ponganis measured the heart rate of California sea lions (Z. californianus) using digital electrocardiogram loggers and found that the heart rate was reduced (bradycardia) during dives along with reduced blood flow to the lungs and periphery. This helps preserve the oxygen…
The Bottleneck Years by H.E. Taylor Chapter 89 Table of Contents Chapter 91 Chapter 90 Ecology 330 -- Extinction, July 7, 2060 I only had time for a few weeks of classes while I was back. The students were eager to hear of my exploits in the North and what I had learned about EF1. I related several tales and then brought them back to course content. "The subject of this lecture can be disturbing. When I first started to study the patterns of life on Earth, I several times found myself unnerved at contemplating extinction --- the deaths of so many life forms. "It is important to realize that…
Guest Blog By David BolinskyFounder and Creative Director of e*mersion Studio In 1962, when I was ten, my family and I had the rare privilege of exploring the ancient caves of Lascaux in southern France to see 17,000 year-old Paleolithic paintings close up. Though sadly no longer open for public viewing, these iconic works changed me forever. In his film ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’, Werner Herzog documented limestone galleries of astonishing thirty-thousand-year-old artwork in the French Chauvet Pont d’Arc. Having practiced the visualization of science for nearly forty years, I resonate with…
There's a common tactic used by creationists, and I've encountered it over and over again. It's a form of the Gish Gallop: present the wicked evolutionist with a long list of assertions, questions, and non sequiturs, and if they answer with "I don't know" to any of them, declare victory. It's easy. We say "I don't know" a lot. Jack Chick's Big Daddy tract is a version of the creationist list, and contains a fair amount of fantasy as well. You know what they believe will happen: they'll ask that one question that the scientist can't answer, and then they'll have an epiphany, a revelation, and…
Perovskite solar cells can not only emit light, they can also emit up to 70% of absorbed sunlight as lasers. Critical signaling molecules can be used to convert stem cells to neural progenitor cells, increasing the yield of healthy motor neurons and decreasing the time required to grow them. Mexican blind cavefish are so close to their sighted kin that they are considered the same species, but they use pressure waves (from opening and closing their mouths) to navigate in the dark. Electrostatic assembly allows luminescent elements (like Europium) to be embedded in nanodiamonds; these glowing…
Salamanders can be a proxyindicator for climate change. Changes in salamanders have been linked to climate changes during ancient times, and in a very recent study, salamanders in the US Appalachians seem to have changed in relation to anthropogenic global warming. In fact, the changes observed in these Appalachian salamanders is quite large, very rapid, and thus, alarming. I’m going to describe this study in some detail, and as a bonus for sticking with me on this, I’ll throw in some entertaining Climate Science Denialism near the end. As an additional bonus prize, you’ll get a nice new…
Yes, it surely does. It reeks. I completely missed this article -- no surprise, it seems everyone did -- titled "Fossils Evidences (Paleontology) Opposite to Darwin’s Theory," by Md. Abdul Ahad and Charles D. Michener, in the Journal of Biology and Life Science, and now you can't read it because the journal retracted it and deleted it. The first sign that something might be off in this paper is the title. "Fossils Evidences (Paleontology) Opposite to Darwin’s Theory"? Seriously? No one even stopped to notice how ungrammatical it was? And then there's the abstract. Darwin‟s Theory is a…
I was looking over the Discovery Institute's Evolution News and Views site, prior to forgetting about it. I mentioned that I am forced to revamp my email handling and was going to be blocking a lot of noise from my work address, and as I was reviewing what domains I needed to allow through, I noticed that boy-howdy, I get a lot of crappy spam from the Discovery Institute (all of which is now getting blocked). So I actually bothered to go through one of their links and see what they're babbling about now. General impression: the Discovery Institute is really obsessed with Cosmos: A Spacetime…
Larry Moran has been given a quiz to test our comprehension of Intelligent Design creationism. Unfortunately, it was composed by someone who doesn't understand ID creationism but merely wants everyone to regurgitate their propaganda, so it's a major mess, and you can also tell that the person writing it was smugly thinking they were laying some real traps to catch us out in our ignorance. Larry has posted his answers. I've put mine below the fold (I sorta subtly disagree with him on #2). If you want to take a stab at it untainted by our answers, here's the original quiz, untainted by logic or…