Posts Tagged ‘evolution’
Okay, what? Shut up, evolution, this cannot actually be a bird. Are you high?
WTF Evolution: “Honoring natural selection’s most awkward creations. Go home, evolution, you are drunk.”
The wolffish is actually modeled after evolution’s cousin Frank. Evolution has always secretly hated its cousin Frank.
As we think over trial and error, we might recall that it was on this date in 1897 that the Indiana State House of Representatives passed Bill No.246 which gave pi the exact value of 3.2– a nice, round… and wrong number.
Hoosier Dr. Edwin J. Goodwin, M.D, a mathematics enthusiast, satisfied himself that he’d succeeded in “squaring the circle.” Hoping to share with his home state the fame that would surely be forthcoming, Dr. Goodwin drafted legislation that would make Indiana the first to declare the value of pi as law, and convinced Representative Taylor I. Record, a farmer and lumber merchant, to introduce it. As an incentive, Dr. Goodwin, who planned to copyright his “discovery,” offered in the bill to make it available to Indiana textbooks at no cost.
It seems likely that few members of the House understood the bill (many said so during the debate), crammed as it was with 19th century mathematical jargon. Indeed, as Petr Beckmann wrote in his History of Pi, the bill contained “hair-raising statements which not only contradict elementary geometry, but also appear to contradict each other.” (Full text of the bill here.) Still, it sailed through the House.
As it happened, Professor Clarence Abiathar Waldo, the head of the Purdue University Mathematics Department and author of a book titled Manual of Descriptive Geometry, was in the Statehouse lobbying for the University’s budget appropriation as the final debate and vote were underway. He was astonished to find the General Assembly debating mathematical legislation. Naturally, he listened in… and he was horrified.
On February 11 the legislation was introduced in the Senate and referred to the Committee on Temperance, which reported the bill favorably the next day, and sent it to the Senate floor for debate.
But Professor Waldo had “coached” (as he later put it) a number of key Senators on the bill, so this time its reception was different. According to an Indianapolis News report of February 13,
…the bill was brought up and made fun of. The Senators made bad puns about it, ridiculed it and laughed over it. The fun lasted half an hour. Senator Hubbell said that it was not meet for the Senate, which was costing the State $250 a day, to waste its time in such frivolity. He said that in reading the leading newspapers of Chicago and the East, he found that the Indiana State Legislature had laid itself open to ridicule by the action already taken on the bill. He thought consideration of such a propostion was not dignified or worthy of the Senate. He moved the indefinite postponement of the bill, and the motion carried.
As one watches state governments around the U.S. enacting similarly nonsensical, unscientific legislation (e.g., here… perhaps legislators went to school on this), one might be forgiven for wondering “Where’s Waldo?”
Since the early 70s, academics and NGOs concerned with population growth have understood that the single most effective “lever” a society can pull to achieve population “control” (short of authoritarian birth bans, a la China) is the enhancement of women’s roles in the economy and society– the better educated, the more engaged a country’s women, the lower its fertility rate– and almost always, the more robust its economy, the more stable its polis, the healthier its environment, etc., etc. [c.f., e.g., here].
While experience continues to support this understanding, research is also suggesting that there may be another, complementary force at work; Pacific Standard reports that “French Semen Is Not What It Used To Be.”:
French men are losing sperm, and not in the fun way, according to a new study in Human Reproduction. Researchers examined semen samples given by 27,000 French men at fertility clinics, and found that the average sperm concentration fell more than 32 percent between 1989 and 2005.
Those findings echo a growing heap of research going back to the 1970s suggesting that the semen quality of men in industrialized countries is steadily declining. The most commonly-cited explanation is chemicals in the environment. Bear in mind, though, the supposed sperm-concentration drop is not a settled matter – many of the studies over the years were poorly designed, had overly-small sample sizes or were otherwise flawed. But if the ranks of men’s sperm are being thinned, for whatever reason, it could have serious implications for couples’ chances of conceiving.
As we ponder potency, we might send biological birthday greetings to Erasmus Darwin; he was born on this date in 1731. Erasmus was an accomplished doctor (he declined an offer to be personal physician to Charles III), but is better remembered as a key thinker in the “Midlands Enlightenment”– a founder of the Lunar Society of Birmingham and author of (among other works) Zoonomia, or, The Laws of Organic Life, which contained one of the first formal theories of evolution… one that foreshadowed the theories of Erasmus’ reader– and grandson– Charles.
From E.O. Wilson’s Encyclopedia of Life, via the TED Blog, a collection of very amusing (and altogether appropriate) animal group names: “Animals that travel in schools, towers, bloats and more.”
As we noodle on nomenclature, we might send dynamically-evolved birthday greetings to Stephen Jay Gould; he was born on this date in 1941. One of the most influential and widely read writers of popular science in his generation (e.g., Ever Since Darwin, The Panda’s Thumb), Gould was a highly-respected academic paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science. With Niles Eldridge, he developed the theory of “punctuated equilibrium,” an explanation of evolution that suggests (in contrast with the gradualism that was prevalent until then) that most evolution is marked by long periods of evolutionary stability, which are interrupted– “punctuated”– by rare instances of branching evolution (c.f., the Burgess Shale).
Humankind’s remotest relative is a very rare micro-organism from south-Norway. The discovery may provide an insight into what life looked like on earth almost one thousand million years ago… ”We have found an unknown branch of the tree of life that lives in this lake. It is unique! So far we know of no other group of organisms that descend from closer to the roots of the tree of life than this species. It can be used as a telescope into the primordial micro-cosmos,” says an enthusiastic associate professor, Kamran Shalchian-Tabrizi, head of the Microbial Evolution Research Group (MERG) at the University of Oslo…
Life on Earth can be divided up into two main groups of species, prokaryotes and eukaryotes. The prokaryote species, such as bacteria, are the simplest form of living organisms on Earth. They have no membrane inside their cell and therefore no real cell nucleus. Eukaryote species, such as animals and humankind, plants, fungi and algae, on the other hand do.
The family tree of the protozoan from the lake starts at the root of the eukaryote species.
“The micro-organism is among the oldest, currently living eukaryote organisms we know of. It evolved around one billion years ago, plus or minus a few hundred million years. It gives us a better understanding of what early life on Earth looked like,” Kamran says…
More– including how newly-developed techniques in genetic analysis enabled the “decoding” of the organism, first discovered in the mis-Nineteenth Century, and how the protozoa might be useful in purifying drinking water– in this article in Science Daily.
As we marvel at the miracle of mutation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1887 that ”Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show,” including “the selected representatives of several nations, including the Sioux, the Cheyennes, and the Pawnees,” sharpshooter Annie Oakley, and Colonel William F Cody– Buffalo Bill– himself, opened in London. As The (London) Times reported:
Its great object is to illustrate the wild life of the Western frontier–its Indians and cowboys, its buffalo-huntings and cattle-ranches, its pioneering and its horsemanship, its dangers and its joys.
And so, for nearly a year, it did.
photo: Minden/plainpicture (source)
Many biologists have long believed that, before the point 2.9 billion years ago that the three domains of life emerged, there was no speciation– genetic material of all sorts was freely exchanged in every direction. In this “pre-Darwinian” period, which lasted hundreds of millions of years, there was no “evolution”; rather, cells struggling to survive on their own exchanged useful parts with each other without competition.
Now, as a function of the effort to identify the Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA)– the organism from which all life on earth must be descended– scientists have begun to suspect that all of those cells trading parts were part of a single entity: an enormous mega-organism that filled the planet’s oceans before splitting into three and giving birth to the ancestors of all living things on Earth today.
It was around 2.9 billion years ago that LUCA split into the three domains of life: the single-celled bacteria and archaea, and the more complex eukaryotes that gave rise to animals and plants (see timeline). It’s hard to know what happened before the split. Hardly any fossil evidence remains from this time, and any genes that date that far back are likely to have mutated beyond recognition.
That isn’t an insuperable obstacle to painting LUCA’s portrait, says Gustavo Caetano-Anollés of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. While the sequence of genes changes quickly, the three-dimensional structure of the proteins they code for is more resistant to the test of time. So if all organisms today make a protein with the same overall structure, he says, it’s a good bet that the structure was present in LUCA. He calls such structures living fossils, and points out that since the function of a protein is highly dependent on its structure, they could tell us what LUCA could do…
LUCA had a rich metabolism that used different food sources, and it had internal organelles. So far, so familiar. But its genetics are a different story altogether. For starters, LUCA may not have used DNA. Poole has studied the history of enzymes called ribonucleotide reductases, which create the building blocks of DNA, and found no evidence that LUCA had them (BMC Evolutionary Biology, DOI: 10.1186/1471-2148-10-383). Instead, it may have used RNA: many biologists think RNA came first because it can store information and control chemical reactions.
The crucial point is that LUCA was a “progenote“, with poor control over the proteins that it made, says Massimo Di Giulio of the Institute of Genetics and Biophysics in Naples, Italy. Progenotes can make proteins using genes as a template, but the process is so error-prone that the proteins can be quite unlike what the gene specified. Both Di Giulio and Caetano-Anollés have found evidence that systems that make protein synthesis accurate appear long after LUCA. “LUCA was a clumsy guy trying to solve the complexities of living on primitive Earth,” says Caetano-Anollés…
Only when some of the cells evolved ways of producing everything they needed could the mega-organism have broken apart. We don’t know why this happened, but it appears to have coincided with the appearance of oxygen in the atmosphere, around 2.9 billion years ago. Regardless of the cause, life on Earth was never the same again.
As we rethink the roots of our family trees, we might spare a thought for the Spanish-Arab philosopher, physician, and astronomer known in the West as Averroes; he died on this date in 1198. The most famous of medieval Muslim philosophers, he was an authority on Aristotle, whose thought he defended against the charge that it was an affront to Islam. His Kulliyat fi ab tb (Generalities on Medicine) attempted to codify logically all existing medical knowledge– from organ anatomy and hygiene to the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of diseases– and spread widely via translations. In astronomy, he argued for strictly concentric orbital organization, believing that the motion of the planets had to be around a physical center (the Earth)– thus rejecting Ptolemy’s system of epicycles.
Two out of three ain’t bad.