(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘evolution

“The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss”*…


The oldest gliding mammals ever discovered are strengthening the case for taking to the skies.

Well, they couldn’t exactly soar like the eagles, but the two new species, discovered in China, at least sampled the aerial life. Both date to around 160 million years ago during the Jurassic Period, when mammals as a lineage were first getting off the ground — both metaphorically and literally. They’re not directly related to the gliders of today, however. Gliding instead seems to be advantageous enough that it has appeared several times throughout our evolutionary history…

Both fossils belong to a group of ancestral mammals that have long been extinct. As such, there is no line connecting them to gliding mammals today, indicating that mammalian aerial skills disappeared and re-emerged at least once throughout history. Using birds as an obvious example, flight is a powerful advantage to have. Even as a (temporarily) airborne creature you expend less energy, move faster and evade potential predators — all benefits that make the evolutionary trade-offs worthwhile. It’s not just mammals either, many frog species and even some fish have gained the ability to glide, with evidence that the trait has appeared more than once in those species as well…

The full story at: “Oldest Gliding Mammals Shed Light on the History of Flight.”

* Douglas Adams on flying, in Life, the Universe and Everything


As we take to the air, we might recall that it was on this date in 1829 that Chang and Eng Bunker, arrived in Boston aboard the ship Sachem to be exhibited to the Western world.  The original “Siamese Twins,” they were  joined at the waist by a band of cartilage, about 8 in. circumference and 4 in. long.  In 1828 British merchant Robert Hunter “discovered” them and paid their family to let them be exhibited as a curiosity during a world tour; at the end of that engagement, the brothers went into business for themselves.  In 1839, they visited Wilkesboro, N.C. with P. T. Barnum; they found the town appealing, settled there, took the surname “Bunker,” became United States citizens, and in 1843 married two sisters with whom they raised 10 children. Only after their death was it discovered that the cartilage that connected them could have been easily and safely removed.

Click here for Mark Twain’s short story, “The Siamese Twins,” based on Chang and Eng.

Chang and Eng Bunker



Written by LW

August 16, 2017 at 1:01 am

“When you have mastered numbers, you will in fact no longer be reading numbers, any more than you read words when reading books. You will be reading meanings.”*…

Errors of judgment about large numbers can have a big impact on the way you view policies and government decisions. The rationale goes like this: The National Science Foundation received $7.463 billion for fiscal year 2016 through the Consolidated Appropriations Act. The total United States budget outlay for 2016 was $3.54 trillion. If you’re someone who perceives the difference between a billion and a trillion as relatively small, you’d think the US is spending a lot of money on the National Science Foundation—in fact, depending on your politics, you might applaud the federal government’s investment or even think it wasteful. But, if you understand that a billion is a thousand times less than a trillion, you can calculate that the Foundation got a paltry 0.2 percent of the budget outlay last year. (It may be more straightforward to think of the budget as roughly one-half to one-third of reported costs for the proposed US-Mexico border wall, and let your values guide you from there.)…

On the significance of scale: “How to Understand Extreme Numbers.

[The image above is, of course, from the ever-wonderful xkcd.]

* W.E.B. Du Bois


As we nudge ourselves toward numeracy, we might spare a thought for Sewall Wright; he died on this date in 1988.  A geneticist, he was known for his influential work on evolutionary theory and also for his work on path analysis. He was a founder (with Ronald Fisher and J.B.S. Haldane) of population genetics– a major step in the development of the modern evolutionary synthesis combining genetics with evolution.   He is perhaps best remembered for his concept of genetic drift (called the Sewall Wright effect): when small populations of a species are isolated, the few individuals who carry certain relatively rare genes may fail, out of pure chance, to transmit them. The genes may therefore disappear and their loss may lead to the emergence of new species– although natural selection has played no part in the process.



Written by LW

March 3, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Widespread public access to knowledge, like public education, is one of the pillars of our democracy, a guarantee that we can maintain a well-informed citizenry”*…


Top Row (left to right): André Breton; Buster Keaton; László Moholy-Nagy   Middle Row (left to right): Gertrude Stein; H. G. Wells; Frank O’Hara; Alfred Stieglitz   Bottom Row (left to right): Evelyn Waugh; D. T. Suzuki; Paul Nash; Mina Loy

Via Public Domain Review

Pictured above is our top pick of those whose works will, on 1st January 2017, enter the public domain in many countries around the world. Of the eleven featured, five will be entering the public domain in countries with a “life plus 70 years” copyright term (e.g. most European Union members, Brazil, Israel, Nigeria, Russia, Turkey, etc.) and six in countries with a “life plus 50 years” copyright term (e.g. Canada, New Zealand, and many countries in Asia and Africa) — those that died in the year 1946 and 1966 respectively. As always it’s a varied gaggle who’ve assembled for our graduation photo, including the founder of the Surrealist movement, a star of the silent film era, the Japanese author behind the popularisation of Buddhism in the West, two female writers at the heart of the Modernist scene, and one of the “fathers of science fiction”…

More on each of the “graduates” at Class of 2017.

* Scott Turow, attorney, author, President of the Author’s Guild


As we share and share alike, we might send foresightful 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).  He was also a restless inventor, devising both a copying machine and a speaking machine to impress his friends (inventions he shared rather than patenting). But he 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) The Botanic Garden, a poem that anticipates the Big Bang theory in its description of an explosion, a “mass” which “starts into a million suns,” and 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… all of which are in the public domain.


“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge”*…


We’ve looked before at the methodological problems that beset (too) much science, and at the work of John Ioannidis, who’s done more than anyone else to uncover them (see here and here).  Ioannidis is back…  and the news is troubling:

Over the past decade, scientists have increasingly become ashamed at the failings of their own profession: due to a lack of self-policing and quality control, a large proportion of studies have not been replicable, scientific frauds have flourished for years without being caught, and the pressure to publish novel findings—instead of simply good science—has become the commanding mantra. In what might be one of the worst such failings, a new study suggests that even systematic reviews and meta-analyses—typically considered the highest form of scientific evidence—are now in doubt.

The study comes from a single author: John Ioannidis, a highly respected researcher at Stanford University, who has built his reputation showing other scientists what they get wrong. In his latest work, Ioannidis contends that “the large majority of produced systematic reviews and meta-analyses are unnecessary, misleading, or conflicted.”

 Systematic reviews and meta-analyses are statistically rigorous studies that synthesize the scientific literature on a given topic. If you aren’t a scientist or a policymaker, you may have never heard of them. But you have almost certainly been affected by them.

If you’ve ever taken a medicine for any ailment, you’ve likely been given the prescription based on systematic reviews of evidence for that medication. If you’ve ever been advised to use a standing desk to improve your health, it’s because experts used meta-analyses of past studies to make that recommendation. And government policies increasingly rely on conclusions stemming from evidence found in such reviews. “We put a lot of weight and trust on them to understand what we know and how to make decisions,” Ioannidis says…

More at “The man who made scientists question themselves has just exposed huge flaws in evidence used to give drug prescriptions.” See also “The Inevitable Evolution of Bad Science” and “Trouble at the Lab.”

And lest we think “hard scientists” alone in their misery, consider the plight of economists: “The Emperor’s New Paunch.”

*Daniel J. Boorstin


As we check, check, and check again, we might send disingenuous birthday greetings to Trofim Denisovich Lysenko; he was born on this date in 1898.  A Soviet biologist and agronomist, he believed the Mendelian theory of heredity to be wrong, and developed his own, allowing for “soft inheritance”– the heretability of learned behavior. (He believed that in one generation of a hybridized crop, the desired individual could be selected and mated again and continue to produce the same desired product, without worrying about separation/segregation in future breeds.–he assumed that after a lifetime of developing (acquiring) the best set of traits to survive, those must be passed down to the next generation.)

In many way Lysenko’s theories recall Lamarck’s “organic evolution” and its concept of “soft evolution” (the passage of learned traits), though Lysenko denied any connection. He followed I. V. Michurin’s fanciful idea that plants could be forced to adapt to any environmental conditions, for example converting summer wheat to winter wheat by storing the seeds in ice.  With Stalin’s support for two decades, he actively obstructed the course of Soviet biology and caused the imprisonment and death of many of the country’s eminent biologists who disagreed with him.

Interestingly, some current research suggests that heretable learning– or a semblance of it– may in fact be happening, by virtue of epigenetics… though nothing vaguely resembling Lysenko’s theory.



Written by LW

September 29, 2016 at 1:01 am

“We’re supposed to keep evolving. Evolution did not end with us growing opposable thumbs”*…


The CEO of Enron – now in prison – happily applied ‘selfish gene’ logic to his human capital, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Assuming that the human species is driven purely by greed and fear, Jeffrey Skilling produced employees driven by the same motives. Enron imploded under the mean-spirited weight of his policies, offering a preview of what was in store for the world economy as a whole…

Frans de Waal on the flaws in the “competition-is-good-for-you” logic: “How Bad Biology is Killing the Economy.”

* Bill Hicks


As we concentrate on cooperation, we might spare a thought for Martin Gardner; he died on this date in 2010.  Though not an academic, nor ever a formal student of math or science, he wrote widely and prolifically on both subjects in such popular books as The Ambidextrous Universe and The Relativity Explosion and as the “Mathematical Games” columnist for Scientific American.  Indeed, his elegant– and understandable– puzzles delighted professional and amateur readers alike, and helped inspire a generation of young mathematicians.

Gardner’s interests were wide; in addition to the math and science that were his power alley, he studied and wrote on topics that included magic, philosophy, religion, and literature (c.f., especially his work on Lewis Carroll– including the delightful Annotated Alice— and on G.K. Chesterton).  And he was a fierce debunker of pseudoscience: a founding member of CSICOP, and contributor of a monthly column (“Notes of a Fringe Watcher,” from 1983 to 2002) in Skeptical Inquirer, that organization’s monthly magazine.


“This is the first age that’s ever paid much attention to the future, which is a little ironic since we may not have one”*…


Starting tomorrow, the U.S. National Weather Service will discontinue its historical practice of issuing all of its weather bulletins in ALL CAPS.  The agency has been sending out its forecasts with caps lock on for more than 150 years, since the advent of the telegraph. Successive generations of teleprinters used only capital letters; but with the advent of the internet, all caps came to have the affect of a siren.

From tomorrow, all caps will be reserved for actual weather emergencies warranting them.

More at “National Weather Service Takes Off Caps Lock, Will Begin Forecasting Using Inside Voice.”

* Arthur C. Clarke


As we reach for our umbrellas, we might recall that it was on this date in 1925 that John T. Scopes was given a preliminary hearing before three judges. He had been arrested and charged under a new Tennessee state law, the Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution in public schools.  The judicial panel greenlit what became Scopes vs. The State of Tennessee (aka “the Scopes Monkey Trial”).

Tennessee legislators had responded to the urgings of William Bell Riley, head of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, and passed a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution (the Butler Act); in response, The American Civil Liberties Union offered to defend anyone accused of violating the Act.  George Rappleyea, who managed several local mines, convinced a group of businessmen in Dayton, Tennessee, a town of 1,756, that the controversy of such a trial would give Dayton some much needed publicity. With their agreement, he called in his friend, the 24-year-old Scopes, who taught biology in the local high school– and who agreed to be the test case.

The rest is celebrity-filled history, and star-studded drama.

Scopes in 1925

Written by LW

May 10, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination”*…


Donald D. Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine. Hoffman has spent the past three decades studying perception, artificial intelligence, evolutionary game theory and the brain, and his conclusion is a dramatic one: The world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality. What’s more, he says, we have evolution itself to thank for this magnificent illusion, as it maximizes evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction…

The fantastic tale in full at “The Evolutionary Argument Against Reality.”

[Image above source]

* John Lennon


As we question everything, we might recall that it was on this date in 1810 that Beethoven wrote Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor (WoO 59 and Bia 515) for solo piano– better known as “Für Elise” (click to hear).

Some scholars have suggested that “Elise” was Beethoven’s mistress; but others have suggested that the discoverer of the piece, Ludwig Nohl, may have have misunderstood the Master’s handwriting, and transcribed the title incorrectly, that the original work may have been named “Für Therese”–  Therese being Therese Malfatti von Rohrenbach zu Dezza, a friend and student of Beethoven’s to whom he proposed in 1810… though she turned him down to marry the Austrian nobleman and state official Wilhelm von Droßdik.  Today, Therese is forgotten; Elise, celebrated. In any case, it’s a beautiful piece…

The famous opening bars



Written by LW

April 27, 2016 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: