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Posts Tagged ‘evolution

“All things play a role in nature, even the lowly worm”*…



Artist’s rendering of Ikaria wariootia. It would have lived on the seafloor.


A worm-like creature that burrowed on the seafloor more than 500 million years ago may be key to the evolution of much of the animal kingdom.

The organism, about the size of a grain of rice, is described as the earliest example yet found in the fossil record of a bilaterian.  These are animals that have a front and back, two symmetrical sides, and openings at either end joined by a gut.

The scientists behind it say the development of bilateral symmetry was a critical step in the evolution of animal life.

It gave organisms the ability to move purposefully and a common, yet successful way to organise their bodies.

A multitude of animals, from worms to insects to dinosaurs to humans, are organised around this same basic bilaterian body plan.

Scott Evans, of the University of California at Riverside, and colleagues have called the organism Ikaria wariootia

How a 555 million year old worm paved our developmental path: “Fossil worm shows us our evolutionary beginnings.”  Read the underlying paper in the journal PNAS.

* Gary Larson


As we celebrate symmetry, we might recall that it was on this date in 1858 that Hyman L. Lipman, of Philadelphia was issued the first U.S. patent for a combination lead pencil and eraser (No. 19,783).  The pencil was made in the usual manner, with one-fourth of its length reserved inside one end to carry a piece of prepared india-rubber, glued in at one edge.  Thus, cutting one end prepared the lead for writing, while cutting the other end would expose a small piece of india rubber.  This eraser was then conveniently available whenever needed, and not likely to be mislaid.  Further, the eraser could be sharpened to a finer point to make a more precise erasure of fine lines in a drawing, or cut further down if the end became soiled.

US19783-drawings-page-1 source


Written by LW

March 30, 2020 at 1:01 am

“The appearance of new species naturally and the appearance of new inventions by artifice are both responses to need”*…




Our reign as sole understanders of the cosmos is rapidly coming to an end. We should not be afraid of this. The revolution that has just begun may be understood as a continuation of the process whereby the Earth nurtures the understanders, the beings that will lead the cosmos to self-knowledge. What is revolutionary about this moment is that the understanders of the future will not be humans but cyborgs that will have designed and built themselves from the artificial intelligence systems we have already constructed. These will soon become thousands then millions of times more intelligent than us.

The term cyborg was coined by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline in 1960. It refers to a cybernetic organism: an organism as self-sufficient as one of us but made of engineered materials. I like this word and definition because it could apply to anything ranging in size from a microorganism to a pachyderm, from a microchip to an omnibus. It is now commonly taken to mean an entity that is part flesh, part machine. I use it here to emphasize that the new intelligent beings will have arisen, like us, from Darwinian evolution. They will not, at first, be separate from us; indeed, they will be our offspring because the systems we made turned out to be their precursors.

We need not be afraid because, initially at least, these inorganic beings will need us and the whole organic world to continue to regulate the climate, keeping Earth cool to fend off the heat of the sun and safeguard us from the worst effects of future catastrophes. We shall not descend into the kind of war between humans and machines that is so often described in science fiction because we need each other. Gaia will keep the peace.

This is the age I call the “Novacene.” I’m sure that one day a more appropriate name will be chosen, something more imaginative, but for now I’m using Novacene to describe what could be one of the most crucial periods in the history of our planet and perhaps even of the cosmos…

The father of the Gaia principle with a provocative take on the coming age of hyperintelligence: “Gaia Will Soon Belong to the Cyborgs.”

See also: “Is Moore’s Law Evidence for a New Stage in Human Evolution?

For more background on (and some criticism of) Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis see “Earth’s Holy Fool?–Some scientists think that James Lovelock’s Gaia theory is nuts, but the public love it. Could both sides be right?

[image above: source]

* James Lovelock


As we scrutinize systems, we might send closely-observed birthday greetings to Franklin Henry Giddings; he was born on this date in 1855.  An economist and political scientist by training, he was instrumental in the emergence of sociology from philosophy (of which it had been considered a branch) into a discipline of its own, and a champion of the use of statistics.  He is probably best remembered for his concept of “consciousness of kind” (rooted in Adam Smith’s concept of “sympathy,” or shared moral reactions), which is a state of mind wherein one conscious being recognizes another as being of like mind.  All human motives, he suggested, organize themselves around consciousness of kind as a determining principle.  Association leads to conflict which leads to consciousness of kind through communication, imitation, toleration, co-operation, and alliance.  Eventually, he argued, a group achieves a self-consciousness of its own (as opposed to individual self-consciousness) from which traditions and social values can arise.

Franklin_Henry_Giddings source


“So profound is our ignorance, and so high our presumption, that we marvel when we hear of the extinction of an organic being”*…


Human skull

A Neanderthal skull shows head trauma, evidence of ancient violence


Nine human species walked the Earth 300,000 years ago. Now there is just one. The Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis, were stocky hunters adapted to Europe’s cold steppes. The related Denisovans inhabited Asia, while the more primitive Homo erectus lived in Indonesia, and Homo rhodesiensis in central Africa.

Several short, small-brained species survived alongside them: Homo naledi in South Africa, Homo luzonensis in the Philippines, Homo floresiensis (“hobbits”) in Indonesia, and the mysterious Red Deer Cave People in China. Given how quickly we’re discovering new species, more are likely waiting to be found.

By 10,000 years ago, they were all gone. The disappearance of these other species resembles a mass extinction. But there’s no obvious environmental catastrophe – volcanic eruptions, climate change, asteroid impact – driving it. Instead, the extinctions’ timing suggests they were caused by the spread of a new species, evolving 260,000-350,000 years ago in Southern Africa: Homo sapiens.

The spread of modern humans out of Africa has caused a sixth mass extinction, a greater than 40,000-year event extending from the disappearance of Ice Age mammals to the destruction of rainforests by civilisation today. But were other humans the first casualties?…

More at “Were other humans the first victims of the sixth mass extinction?

* “… so profound is our ignorance, and so high our presumption, that we marvel when we hear of the extinction of an organic being; and as we do not see the cause, we invoke cataclysms to desolate the world, or invent laws on the duration of the forms of life!”
Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species


As we wonder about our lost siblings, we might spare a thought for Marie Jean Pierre Flourens; he died on this date in 1867.  A physiologist, he was the founder of experimental brain science and a pioneer in anesthesia.  He was the first to demonstrate the general functions of the major portions of the vertebrate brain; more generally, through the study of ablations on vertebrate animals, he was the first to prove that the mind was located in the brain, not the heart (as was then believed).

Ironically, he was a Creationist– an opponent of Darwin and the theory of natural selection.

220px-Pierre_flourens source


“Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly”*…



The first Pelican title


It was a university course for the price of a packet of cigarettes: Pelican Books! Maybe the blend wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but there’s no denying the addictive nature of the range!

Pulp Librarian looks back at the autodidact’s library of choice: “Pelican Books.”

* Sir Francis Bacon


As we double-down on democratization, we might send chronically-correct birthday greetings to Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon; he was born on this date in 1707.  A naturalist, mathematician, cosmologist, and encyclopédiste, Buffon formulated a crude theory of evolution, and was the first to suggest that the earth might be older than suggested by the Bible: in 1778 he proposed that the Earth was hot at its creation and, judging from the rate of its cooling, calculated its age to be 75,000 years, with life emerging some 40,000 years ago.

In 1739 Buffon was appointed keeper of the Jardin du Roi, a post he occupied until his death. There he worked on the comprehensive work on natural history for which he is remembered, Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière. He began in 1749, and it dominated the rest of his life.  It would eventually run to 44 volumes, covering quadrupeds, birds, reptiles and minerals.  As Ernst Mayr remarked, “truly, Buffon was the father of all thought in natural history in the second half of the 18th century.”



Written by LW

September 7, 2019 at 1:01 am

“I like good strong words that mean something”*…




“One of my favorite words is lox,” says Gregory Guy, a professor of linguistics at New York University. There is hardly a more quintessential New York food than a lox bagel—a century-old popular appetizing store, Russ & Daughters, calls it “The Classic.” But Guy, who has lived in the city for the past 17 years, is passionate about lox for a different reason. “The pronunciation in the Proto-Indo-European was probably ‘lox,’ and that’s exactly how it is pronounced in modern English,” he says. “Then, it meant salmon, and now it specifically means ‘smoked salmon.’ It’s really cool that that word hasn’t changed its pronunciation at all in 8,000 years and still refers to a particular fish.”

How scholars have traced the word’s pronunciation over thousands of years is also really cool. The story goes back to Thomas Young, also known as “The Last Person Who Knew Everything.” The 18th-century British polymath came up with the wave theory of light, first described astigmatism, and played a key role in deciphering the Rosetta Stone. Like some people before him, Young noticed eerie similarities between Indic and European languages. He went further, analyzing 400 languages spread across continents and millennia and proved that the overlap between some of them was too extensive to be an accident. A single coincidence meant nothing, but each additional one increased the chance of an underlying connection. In 1813, Young declared that all those languages belong to one family. He named it “Indo-European.”…

Delight in the detective work recounted at “The English Word That Hasn’t Changed in Sound or Meaning in 8,000 Years.”

* Louisa May Alcott, Little Women


As we celebrate continuity, we might spare a thought for James Burnett, Lord Monboddo; he died on this date in 1799.  a Scottish judge and scholar of linguistic evolution, he is best remembered a one of the founders of the modern field of comparative historical linguistics.

Monboddo was one of a number of scholars involved at the time in development of early concepts of biological evolution. Some credit him with anticipating in principle the idea of natural selection in papers that were read by (and acknowledged in the writings of) Erasmus Darwin.  Charles Darwin read the works of his grandfather Erasmus and, of course, later developed the ideas into a scientific theory.

Lord_Monboddo01 source


“When the world changes faster than species can adapt, many fall out”*…




(Roughly) Daily recently considered the newly-unearthed fossil record of the asteroid strike that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.  But what if that asteroid had missed?

An asteroid slammed down and did away with all the dinosaurs, paving the way for such developments as the human race, capitalism, and posting on the internet: it’s the story we all know and love. Yet if things had shaken out differently—if the asteroid had stayed in its place, and the dinosaurs allowed to proceed with their business—what would things have looked like?

Would the earth be a pristine, unsmogged paradise, or would the dinosaurs have somehow evolved into even more rapacious profiteers/industrialists, wrecking the world with their dinosaur refineries and dinosaur dark money? The latter scenario being totally implausible, what’s a likely answer to the question of what our world would look like if that asteroid never hit it?…

Nine scientists– geologists, paleontologists, and evolutionary biologists– provide some fascinating “alternative history”: “What If the Asteroid Never Killed the Dinosaurs?

* Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History


As we explore the road not taken, we might recall that it was on this date in 1869 that the American Museum of Natural History was incorporated.  Its founding had been urged in a letter, dated December 30, 1868, and sent to Andrew H. Green, Comptroller of Central Park, New York, signed by 19 persons, including Theodore Roosevelt, A.G. Phelps Dodge, and J. Pierpont Morgan.  They wrote: “A number of gentlemen having long desired that a great Museum of Natural History should be established in Central Park, and having now the opportunity of securing a rare and very valuable collection as a nucleus of such Museum, the undersigned wish to enquire if you are disposed to provide for its reception and development.”  Their suggestion was accepted by Park officials; the collections were purchased– and thus the great museum began.  It opened April 27, 1871.



“No one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark”*…



Migrants disembark from Royal Navy Ship HMS Enterprise in Catania, Italy, 23 October 2016


As the world’s ranks swell, population shifts have emerged as a major global challenge with potentially catastrophic implications. Endless debates over immigration rights have failed to produce the faintest hint of an acceptable solution. So perhaps an alternative approach would be to factor in an underlying basic law of chemistry. At the risk of gross oversimplification, what if we saw the flow of populations as the human equivalent of osmosis?

In high-school chemistry we learned that, in a container of water divided into two halves by a semipermeable membrane, uneven concentrations of salt resulted in movement of water from the more dilute side to the side of greater concentration. The greater the discrepancy in solute concentration, be it a salt molecule or a complex plasma protein, the greater the force to equalise the concentrations.

Now imagine the world as a giant vat subdivided into a number of smaller containers (nations) separated from each other by semipermeable membranes (borders). Instead of salt, provide each container with differing amounts of food, shelter and essential services. In this scenario, population flow from nation to nation will be a direct function of the degree of difference of goods, opportunities and hope.

This shift of populations isn’t just an ethical or metaphysical dilemma to be resolved at the level of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. It isn’t about the right to own land and enforce borders, or the relative worth of individuals versus groups. Instead, the pressures driving immigration should be seen as natural and unavoidable – like chemical reactions; from that perspective, a reduction in the gradients would be the only possible long-term solution…

Arguments for the rights of nations to control their borders are a huge step in the wrong direction. We need to take a hard look at the disruptive dynamics of inequality. If this simple fact of chemistry (that lesser flows to greater) can’t penetrate the predominantly impermeable minds of policymakers, welcome to a world of escalating chaos.

Robert A. Burton considers climate change, economic inequality, political imbalances and other “reasons to move,” as he suggests a more productive way to think about one of this era’s most pressing challenges, one that can be mitigated and made more humane, if not avoided: “Like the chemical process of osmosis, migration is unstoppable.”

* Warsan Shire


As we focus on reducing the gradients, we might recall that it was on this date in 1925 that the Butler Act, prohibiting the teaching of evolution in Tennessee classrooms, became law… paving the way for the Scopes “Monkey” Trial.


Anti-Evolution League at the Scopes Trial, 1925



Written by LW

March 21, 2019 at 1:01 am

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