martes, 25 de mayo de 2010

Chapter 7 -- Instinct

In his chapter on instinct, Charles Darwin acknowledges that instinct is one of the most difficult for him to explain through natural selection. However, through examples such as beehives and the cuckoo, Darwin creates a convincing case for the gradual evolution of instinctual behaviors. A well-known example of instinct in the United States is the migration of the monarch butterfly. These insects migrate to the southern United States and Mexico every winter, and as far as Canada in the summer. This process takes six to eight generations in total to complete, making it impossible for the path to be learned and passed on through teaching. For decades, how monarch butterflies find their way, using similar routes as their ancestors, has been a mystery. Recently, however, a breakthrough has been made in the discovery of photoreceptor proteins called cryptochromes. These proteins allow monarchs to see ultraviolet light, and, most interestingly, to sense the earth's magnetic field.



Chapter 3 - Struggle for Existence

In examining Darwin´s explanation for natural selection and evolution, one of his main arguments comes from species´struggle for existence. For if there was no struggle, then there would be no pressure to select the most fit creature. These ideas that there are limited resources that members of a species must compete for comes from the early economist-philosopher Thomas Malthus. His ideas are shaped by the fact that a species is only checked from exponential growth and population excess by the limited resources of the environment.

Thomas Malthus predicted that humans would someday come to the same conclusion - a fact that is still much debated as human growth has more or less remain unchecked since the writing of his book. However, some scientists say that the time has finally come and Malthus´predictions are about to come true... the culprit? Global climate change. In an article for the New York Times, Steven Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics, examines the Malthusian principle that climate change will affect the world food supply to such a great extent that populations will starve and finally reach the "check" that Thomas Malthus so long ago predicted. However, as any good economist would, he first explores the potential for profit in this new world. First, he notes that at the same time as productive lands are losing food capabilities to drought and flooding, many other areas are gaining food capacity. He thinks that this gained capacity will result in much great production and increase the value of the land. He notes that a hectare of farming land in Ukraine is currently 5 times less than a hectare in Great Britain. He therefore sees the enormous profit potential for people willing to bet on not only the scarcity and thus food price wars to come, but on the very survival of the human population growth rate as we know it.

Zach Ming

Chapter 9 (or 10): The Geological Record

Buenas Tardes!

My chapter was "On the Imperfection of the Geological Record," and I found an interesting quote I wanted to share: "In all cases positive paleontological evidence may be implicitly trusted; negative evidence is worthless, as experience has so often shown."
Unfortunately, this topic is a little hard to find news articles on, because most people are not looking into what the geological record does not show us (except creationists, etc). But there is all sorts of research going on right now based on what the geological record IS telling us-- mainly using it to predict various natural disasters, which could be helpful.
For example, researchers think that a second volcanic eruption will follow that of Eyjafjoll in Iceland, because that's what has happened the past 3 times Eyjafjoll went berserk. Katla, a volcano 25 miles away from Eyjafjoll, apparently tends to wake up when its sister volcano erupts, but with an impact orders of magnitude larger. So they're keeping an eye on thermal readings from satellites to see if this time it will follow the historical trend.
Additionally, earthquakes leave ample evidence in the geological record-- mainly in the form of turbidites, which are masses of coarse sediment that flow down underwater shelves and canyons during seismic disturbances, depositing layers of gravel and rock that indicate their high-energy origin. Scientists at Oregon State University have looked at the frequency of turbidites in offshore sediments to determine that the PAcific Northwest is due for a big earthquake-- 1 in 3 chance of a magnitude 9 in the next 50 years. Interestingly, the Midwest is also due for a massive earthquake (though turbidites can't be used for this sort of prediction, since it's in the middle of the continent, so they have to look for other types of geological evidence).



Chapter 2 - Variation Under Nature

In chapter 2 of the Origin, Darwin begins discussing the kind of variation naturally found in individuals which then lead to new sub-species and new species. A big portion of the chapter is centered around the distinction between a species and a variation, which have no clear definitions, he says. This is still true now, 150 years after the publication of the Origin. In it, he describes that distinction that he found on between bird species and variations on the Galapagos as "vague and arbitrary."

The issue arose again recently when trying to classify the new humanoid remains found in South Africa recently. With a reconstructed skull made from excavated fragments, it has been determined that the bones belong to a new Homo species, the oldest yet discovered. This brings new doubts as to the true "missing link," pushing aside the previous ancestral connection between humans and Australopithecus. The questions remain, however. With the lack of genetic evidence and lack of complete skull, what distinguishes this species from the previous known species, such as previously oldest Homo habilis? What determines that this species still belongs to the Homo genus?



Chapter 4-Natural Selection and H1N1

Natural Selection:

A pressure on diversity that preserves favorable variations and rejects injurious variations within a species. This works through the passing of inheritable traits through generations, with the individuals exhibiting favorable variations maintaining a high level of fitness while individuals exhibiting injurious traits leave fewer offspring. These traits are eventually dropped from the population.

The Power of Man's selection:

The selection for extremes in pigeons by man due to man's tendency to find extremes more interesting, shows how over a short period of time artificial selection can shape the anatomy and behavior of a species. However, Darwin argues that because man selects for arbitrary traits due to personal preference, he could never actually help to create more fit animals like the geological time scale of natural selection.

Sexual Selection:

The influence of the opposite sex upon preferred traits allows for a higher fitness of animals with generally desirable traits. It does not kill the disadvantageous traits, but rather just prevents them from reproducing.


Competition of individuals that have either been isolated or have physical barriers which occupy the same niche, for the same resources will increase the effect of injurious and advantageous traits allowing one type to succeed while the other will die off. This is how extinction occurs in populations.

Divergence of Character:

In an effort to prevent intense competition for limited resources animals adapt to use different habitat and food. These variations continue as long there are alternative resources and the environment remains stable. If no new competitive species are introduced many variations may occur.

H1N1 developed a drug-resistant strain of the virus after less than two weeks within two hosts with compromised immunity. How did these little buggers do it? NATURAL SELECTION. Virus reproduction rates are ridiculous so you can witness the miracle of natural selection in real time. At first the drugs began to kill the virus but then "laboratory tests of virus strains isolated from patients showed that some strains contained a genetic mutation (the H275Y mutation) that [made] the virus less susceptible to some neuraminidase inhibitors." These viruses survived to reproduce while the rest were killed off by the enzyme inhibitors. Now there is a more adapted strain if H1N1 virus and I'm sure it mutated again and again producing strains with no selective advantage that were also killed off.

lunes, 24 de mayo de 2010

Chapter 6 - Difficulties with the Theory

The Atheists Nightmare returns! Originally Ray Comfort presented a banana as absolute proof that God must have been present throughout evolution and had a plan with humans as the ultimate form of life, because a banana is perfectly made for people. This, however, was mocked all over the Internet, because bananas were actually domesticated by the people of Papua New Guinea between 5000 and 8000 years ago through the process of evolution. Now, however, believers of Intelligent Design have returned with another sure-fire way to disprove evolution, a jar of peanut butter.

The argument is based on the idea that since life is said to have originated from matter and energy, then this should continue to repeat itself throughout our existence. The claim is that since, when you open a jar of peanut butter you don’t see a new life form that has been created with the matter of the peanut butter and the energy from the sun that life never could have been formed in this way. They then stretch this even further to say that this proves that God’s presence in the initial creation of life.

I don’t to dedicate this “New and Hot” to refuting this argument based on a jar of peanut butter, because it is an argument based on a belief in God and its absurdity can’t be debated in the realm of science. Instead I want to wonder why this is able to make people question the validity of Evolution by means of Natural Selection. I feel the questions Darwin himself raises within On the Origin of Species (1859) are much more interesting to consider and should make people question his theory. Personally I think Darwin’s question about whether instincts can develop through the process of Natural Selection is much more interesting and though provoking than a jar of peanut butter.

My only plea is that if you are going to spend your time questioning Natural Selection at least use of your time well and think about an interesting question and not a jar of peanut butter.


Darwin Rocks.


jueves, 20 de mayo de 2010

John Edmonstone

Hey kids,

So I decided to research/report on the man who taught Darwin taxidermy. His name was John Edmonstone, and (as we learned), he was a freed slave from Guyana. He lived in Edinburgh after moving to England with his former master, who was a landowner in South America whose son-in-law was the British naturalist who taught John taxidermy. He worked freelance for the University, stuffing specimens for their natural history museum, and made money on the side teaching taxidermy to students. Apparently Darwin spent an hour a day with him for two months, for the whopping price of 1 guinea. Darwin found him "very pleasant and intelligent," and their friendship seemed to leave an impression on Darwin, who realized from it that other races were "just as intelligent" as Europeans. The thing is, not much beyond this is known about Edmonton- birth date, death date, anything. I guess that's how things were back then for freed slaves. Interesting.


The Malthusian Catastrophe

The Malthusian Catastrophe was originally conceived by Reverend Thomas Malthus (1766 - 1834), who predicted that society would eventually return to subsistence level. Malthus believed that population grows at an exponential rate (it does) while food production grows arithmetically, or linearly (historically this has not been the case). Once all suitable land has been turned to production, the amount of food available will not be enough to feed the constantly growing population. Once this occurs, the population will be kept in check by the food supply. This equates to the important ecological and evolutionary concept of carrying capacity. Malthus believed the only way to avoid this fate would be population control.

While Malthus did not provide a timeline for his prediction (some still believe he is correct), so far the evidence is against him. Due in large part to technological advances, which he did not account for, food production has increased exponentially rather than arithmetically.



Alfred Russel Wallace

Wallace’s place in the biology textbooks throughout the world is as the “other guy” that figured out Natural Selection at the same time as Darwin. History remembers him as the man whose presence forced Darwin to finally publish his masterpiece On the Origin of Species (1859) after 20 years since he first conceived of the Theory of Natural Selection. The fact that both Wallace and Darwin independently came up with the same mechanism for Evolution also strengthened the argument for Evolution as a whole. The question that begs to be asked and for which I can only speculate is, why do we celebrate only Darwin as the Father of Evolution?

These first two evolutionists did not, however, agree on everything. While Darwin is remembered as a staunch Atheist, Wallace not only believed in God, but also saw places for God to exist within the Theory of Natural Selection. Wallace felt that the “higher moral faculties” that humans possessed could not possibly be explained through the mechanism of Natural Selection and thus Wallace postulated that this was the place for God. “He concluded that some sort of godly force must intervene to create these capacities. Darwin was horrified at this suggestion, writing to Wallace, ‘I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child.’”

Looking back on this disagreement, scientists now stand on the side of Darwin and that kindness and other sorts of moral faculties could enable an individual to interact more effectively within its community and thus leave more offspring. This, however is a recent development and could not be the reason for why Darwin and not Wallace. I would, in fact, goes as far to say that I would have expected the opposite to be true and that Wallace would be revered, because he left room for God’s presence within Evolution, which would have been less radical.

Why Darwin is a question to continue to be pondered throughout the quarter and my life, but what is true is that Wallace acted as the catalyze to Darwin’s Reaction, but like every catalyze, was left unchanged in the end.

Full Article:

Darwin Rocks. Wallace is kinda cool too.


Asa Gray. the Man

Asa Gray wrote multiple reviews and essays defending Darwin's theory of natural selection against theological attacks. This began shortly after publication of the Origin with two published pieces in 1860. The first was a review written for the American Journal for Science and Arts, and the second was an essay titled "Natural Selection not inconsistent with Natural Theology" which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. Overall his thoughts on the subject were that evolution was a fact and that God was the force behind what Darwin called natural selection. God, he said, limited the possible variations within a species and between species. Therefore there is no incompatability between religion and Darwinism. Darwin liked Gray's writings so much that he asked him for permission to reprint his writings. Darwin then paid for pamphlets with Gray's thoughts that he would pass out to people who argued or challenged his theory based on theology.

Gray later wrote a book of essays on Darwinism titled Darwiniana that further supported natural selection. It mainly connected the theory to the field of botany and showed how evolution also applies to plants. But a large portion of the book also focused on supporting Darwinism in the context of Christianity. As time went on however, Darwin began distancing himself from Gray, especially in his book The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. In it, darwin began to state that Gray's thoughts on evolution were not true to his theory, since God could have no driving force in evolution in the way Gray had stated and still be compatible with natural selection; God would make natural selection superfluous.

"However much we may wish it, we can hardly follow Professor Asa Gray in his belief that 'variation has been led along certain beneficial lines,' like a stream 'along definite and useful lines of irrigation.' "
- Charles Darwin, The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication

Despite the rift that later formed between the two men, Asa Gray undoubtedly played a vital role in helping Darwin's theory and On the Origin of Species become more widely accepted into the American mainstream and the scientific community.

link :,y.0,no.,content.true,page.1,css.print/issue.aspx


Vice-Admiral Robert Fitzroy

This man was obviously a very large influence upon Darwin in that by requesting a campanion on his voyage to map the South American coast. Fitzroy was very aware of the previous captain´s difficulty with the loneliness of being in charge, and decided that it could all be avoid by the presence of intelligent conversation with another high-minded gentleman.

Fitzroy had actually planned on returning the Fuegians at his own expense after he had returned to England and lost his temporary Captainship of The Beagle. However, like Darwin he also had a kind uncle, The Duke of Grafton, who interceded on his behalf to the Admirality and his position as captaing of The Beagle was restored.

Darwin talks a little about Fitzroy and their quarrels in "The Voyage" but it turns out that it wasn´t just the close quarters and duration of time spent together that started their fights. Fitzroy was known for having quite a short fuse when it came to being questioned. In fact, the crew gave him the nickname "Hot Coffee" based on his voilent outbursts. One famous quarrel came when the two men broached the subject of slavery. When Darwin expressed discontent with the violent treatment of slaves Fitzroy told the story of a master who asked his slaves if they wanted to be free and they said no. Darwin asked how fair it could be for the master to ask this question and expect to receive an honest response. Fitzroy yelled that if Darwin could not trust the word of the captain they could not continue sharing a space and banished Darwin from his table. Later that night he gave Darwin a very thoughtful apology and invited him back.

Fitzroy also bought a schooner called the Adventure when they were in the Falkland Islands. Later, in Valparaiso when Darwin was exploring the Andes Fitzroy received a reprimand from the Admiralty for buying the schooner and took it so badly that he resigned as captain claiming doubts about his sanity. The crew managed to convince him otherwise, and when Darwin returned he was again captain and the voyage continued as planned. These events really show the character of Fitzroy, but despite his temper Darwin and Fitzroy got along reall well for a large majority of the 5-year journey.

Darwin´s voyage was completely at the mercy of Fitzroy and for it to be such a success speaks well of his influence upon Darwin. After the voyage Darwin and Fitzroy remained in contact and Fitzroy married a young woman to whom he had been engaged before the voyage. Darwin was very surprised because not once in the 5-year voyage had Fitzroy mentioned being engaged. They did have a few disagreements about religion after the voyage, when Fitzroy reaffirmed his belief in the literal account of the bible, saying that the shells in the mountains were proof of the Great Flood, and the Flora and Fauna of the world could not have taken such a long amount of time as the geologists would say because the grasses and herbs would have died in the long nights.

The five years that changed Darwin´s life forever were heavily influenced by the one man he spent most of his time with, and for this Fitzroy was a major influence upon the future publication of "The Voyage" and the "Origin of Species".


Speak Up Wallace!

Let´s look at the construction of the theory of evolution from the point of view of Alfred Wallace.

14 years younger than Darwin, Alfred Wallace was a bright, young naturalist studying in modern day Indonesia when a novel new theory struck him. It was a theory that explained the facts of variation within species, geographical variation between species, and Malthusian economics. It was the theory of evolution through natural selection. Half a world a way from England, he needed to mail his theory to see what people thought of it-- and who better to do this to then the well known and respected naturalist, Charles Darwin.

Not soon after he recieves a letter back from Charles saying something along the lines of this-- Dear Wallace, I believe that not only is your theory correct, but that it will be one of the most powerful, influential, and divisive theories in the history of science. Unfortunately, I have already thought of this theory and therefore will be publishing a book to the world before you even have time to get home. I hope you enjoy the rest of your travels.

In my estimation, most people would have been pissed to read something like this, but Wallace was ecstatic that not only was his theory thought to be right, but that he had actually received a letter back from the great Charles Darwin. Darwin had waited much too long to publish his theory and now he was going to have a legitimate moral dilemma in trying to take all of the public credit for the idea when another person had clearly conceived the same idea, albeit much later. However, for the rest of Wallace´s life, he seemed to be content in his second place of evolutionary history. He often referred to Darwin as the original creator of the theory and to himself as the less important. So in asking the question "Why Darwin?" could it possibly be due to the own timidity of the other independent naturalist theorist, not the historians?

Zach Ming

miércoles, 19 de mayo de 2010

Asa Gray

One of Darwin's big supporters and advocates was the Harvard botanist Asa Gray, who often read Darwin's drafts and ideas and gave him criticism and feedback. He was also one of Darwin's contemporaries to encourage him to publish his abstract of the Origin of Species. He believed in the strength of Darwin's theory of natural selection, all while being a devout Christian. He pushed Darwin to question and explore his own belief in God while advocating for Darwin's theory to the general public and academia. Gray always argued for the compatability of evolution and religion until his death. A lot of Darwin's letters to Gray show how the two discussed the issue of religion. Here is an exerpt of one.

"Certainly I agree with you that my views are not at all necessarily atheistical. The lightning kills a man, whether a good one or bad one, owing to the excessively complex action of natural laws,—a child (who may turn out an idiot) is born by action of even more complex laws,—and I can see no reason, why a man, or other animal, may not have been aboriginally produced by other laws; & that all these laws may have been expressly designed by an omniscient Creator, who foresaw every future event & consequence. But the more I think the more bewildered I become; as indeed I have probably shown by this letter."

Link to the letter I quoted:


Isaac Newton – Intelligent Falling

Charles Darwin wanted to be the Isaac Newton of Biology. He wanted to turn Biology into a testable science similarly to what Newton did for the field of Physics. For this reason, I am going to dedicate my “New and Hots” this week to finding out what is both NEW and HOT in relation to this physicist who has been dead for almost 300 years and his influence on Mr. Darwin.

This link between Darwin and Newton is recognized in the modern media. In an article back in 2005, The Onion, a notorious joke newspaper, reported that Evangelical Scientists refute gravity saying that what the force that Newton classified as gravity, is actually God pushing people down. They act of God pushing people down is referred to as, Intelligent Falling. The article jokes about the idea of a group of scientists demanding that Intelligent Falling and Gravitational Force as possible explanations for how everything does not float into space. The repeated line from these scientists is that this “force” of gravity is actually the force of God.

This, of course, is all done to draw a comparison between this fake alternative theory to gravity and the actual controversy going on in public schools around the country about whether Evolution and Intelligent Design should be taught side by side as equally valid theories. Evolution and gravity are two foundational principles of science, but gravity is much more universally accepted throughout the world. By drawing this comparison to evolution, the article hopes to point out how ridiculous it is to question either one of them.

Even, with both scientists long dead, their discoveries stand together as fact in the scientific community.

Full Article:,1778/

Darwin Rocks. Newton Helped.


Jean-Baptiste Lamarck

Hola clase,

I sometimes read this webcomic about literary, scientific, and historical subjects, and recently this came up, and I thought of our Darwin class (making Darwin more available to the general public):So I decided to research the topic.
Lamarck's ideas, of course, are said to have been a great influence on Darwin, who mentioned his 'use and disuse' theory (usually in the context of disuse and vestigial organs), and thought it was grand that he brought to peoples' attention "the probability of all change in the organic... world, being the result of law, not miraculous interposition."
But Lamarck apparently did have quite the argument with well-respected paleontologist Georges Cuvier, back in the day (the early 1800's). Lamarck was one of the first to come up with a "coherent" theory of modification over time, with the mechanisms being 1) a complicating force driving species up a "ladder" of development, and 2) adaptation to local environments, leading to distinct forms of organisms. As he said it,
"frequent and continuous use of any organ gradually strengthens, develops and enlarges that organ, and gives it a power proportional to the length of time it has been so used; while the permanent disuse of any organ imperceptibly weakens and deteriorates it, and progressively diminishes its functional capacity, until it finally disappears"
"these [modifications] are preserved by reproduction to the new individuals which arise, provided that the acquired modifications are common to both sexes"

The problem was that Cuvier was positive that species didn't change, having found fossils that just appeared as they were, stayed that way for long periods of time, and then disappeared. I think (but I'm not sure) that this is just a lack of actual fossil evidence, especially given that Cuvier thought that every single large animal had been discovered by his time. But Cuvier also thought that geology and biology were subject to catastrophism. So of course he got in arguments with Lamarck, saying that one part of an animal couldn't change gradually in isolation from the other parts (which is of course the argument still in use today against evolution, as we have discussed). The argument in the webcomic is basically entirely true to fact; Cuvier looked at mummified specimens and said that they were exactly the same as modern animals; Lamarck countered that evolution happened too slowly to see over only a few thousand years; and Cuvier replied that since nothing happens over a short time, saying that allowing more time was just a convenient defense for a silly theory.

In Cuvier's defense, he was an early proponent of the theory of extinction-- previously, people thought that all creatures were perfect as created by God, and thus wouldn't die out. He was also, on occasion, hilarious:
"When the French Academy was preparing its first dictionary, it defined "crab" as, "A small red fish which walks backwards." This definition was sent with a number of others to the naturalist Cuvier for his approval. The scientist wrote back, "Your definition, gentlemen, would be perfect, only for three exceptions. The crab is not a fish, it is not red and it does not walk backwards."

Despite this, Cuvier was still a major jerk, as it turns out. He gave a eulogy for Lamarck that was totally backhanded:
"...we have conceived it to be our duty, while bestowing the commendation they deserve on the great and useful works which science owes to him, likewise to give prominence to such of his productions in which too great indulgence of a lively imagination has led to results of a more questionable kind, and to indicate, as far as we can, the cause, or, if it may be so expressed, the genealogy of his deviations."

So basically, it looks like my webcomic is both highly entertaining and educational. If you'd like to learn more about history, literature, historical figures, and the like, maybe go have a look:


martes, 18 de mayo de 2010

Erasmus Darwin's Poetry

Erasmus Darwin, Charles's grandfather, was as we all know a leading naturalist in his time, and one of the early pioneers of the concept of evolution. In fact, he stated very clearly that he believed all animals had one common ancestor which lived millions of years ago. What some may not know, however, is that he was an avid and rather accomplished poet. In fact, notable poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge later praised his works.

His best known work, The Botanical Garden, Erasmus combines his love for poetry with his passion for nature. Here is a short poem from the book about plant fertilization:

Woo'd with long care, CURCUMA cold and shy
Meets her fond husband with averted eye:
Four beardless youths the obdurate beauty move
With soft attentions of Platonic love.

With vain desires the pensive ALCEA burns,
And, like sad ELOISA, loves and mourns.
The freckled IRIS owns a fiercer flame,
And three unjealous husbands wed the dame.
CUPRESSUS dark disdains his dusky bride,
One dome contains them, but two beds divide.
The proud OSYRIS flies his angry fair,
Two houses hold the fashionable pair.

Southern Fried Science

Southern Fried Science is a blog founded in 2008 by a group of graduate students in the Carolinas who love the ocean, and are enthralled by all the living things in it.

This group is also doing a spot for 365 days of Darwin on their blog. Here a Darwin that looks strikingly similar to another Darwin I've met in class previously checks out the new technology that's been invented since his time. He seems to have embraced the free market and materialism as he is now showcasing ecological paraphernalia such as endangered species condoms, sustainable water bottles and marine ecology mugs. He also gets a taste of his own medicine when he is "sampled" by being placed in a jar and put on display for a day.

Charlie also gets to see creatures he never would have been able to see such as the deep sea tube worms, thanks to the Southern Fried Science Team and the internet. The team also collects specimens, such as the deep sea isopod so Darwin can see these creatures first hand.

To check out Darwin's day to day activities at the Southern Fried Science Lab go to:
and see all that the man is still doing for evolution!



Perhaps there is no relationship in Charles Darwin´s life more saddening and heartening at the same time as that of his wife, Emma Darwin. Simply put, they were unconditional soulmates. However, on "the most important issue" of religion and God, their disagreement was vast and wide.

The motive behind the original proposal is vague, as there was little to no courtship. Emma was entirely suprised when Charles showed up at her house one day to ask for her hand in marriage. The only person more suprised might have been Charles himself when she accepted on the spot. It was a marriage that began in timidiy, not in lust, passion, or some other sappy romantic story. One of the conversations that the couple did have on the subject was on religion and faith. Emma was a devout and pious Christian while Charles had some serious doubts. Ignoring his father´s advice about not disclosing this particular bit of information, he preceded to tell Emma of his doubts. While she disagreed with him and would continue to disagree for the rest of her life, she agreed to marry anyway.

As the marriage progressed, they fell more and more in love with each other. More than just being there for Charles when he suffered from his continual and mysterious illness, they were the emotional rocks of each other´s lives. When they were dealing with stress, grieving, or mouring, they could barely stand to be away from each other´s presence. Yet behind this seemingly perfect marriage, there was still that one lingering issue.

It manifested itself in a letter that Emma wrote to Charles during their engagement period. The jist of the letter wrote that Emma would be most sad indeed to not be sure that her and her husband´s souls belonged together in eternity. While Charles largely chose to ignore this issue with her, it definitely took great weight on his thought. In fact, on the very letter he wrote to her, "When I am dead, know that many times I have kissed and cryed over this." It was an issue that neither wanted to bring up but that neither could forget. In some almost inexplicable way, their greatest happiness was also the source of their greatest sadness.


jueves, 13 de mayo de 2010

Unintelligent Design

Often our new-and-hots relate to the ongoing debate between evolution and intelligent design. We have discussed the points of arguement and their subsequent pitfalls. I found a recent article and related NPR interview that discusses the irregularities within the intelligent design side. First, the article written by Michael Zimmerman for the Huffington Post states that one fundamental problem with the evidence laid out by IDers is the lack of hypotheses in their "scientific" experiments. Conducting experiments without this fundamental tenant of the scientific method allows the experimenter to then interpret the results as they wish, drawing conclusions that support their personal opinions. This can easily be found to be true with the experiments done by the Biologic Institute, a lab in Seattle that is funded by none other than the Discovery Institute. A podcast recorded by the Discovery Institute discusses one such flawed experiment in which the set up almost felt like a simple "Lets see what happens if we do this" type of experiment.

Another flaw that the article mentions is the faultiness of the claim that we must be intelligently designed because of the irreversible complexities of our bodies and biological functions. They link to a great NPR interview which shows many flawed parts of our body that a designer would not have allowed. Abby Hafer, a physiologist at Curry College, uses some of the examples are ones we have already discussed, such as the blind spot in our eye. Other human flaws that a designer would have probable left out are more interesting and things I would not have thought of. She asserts that male testicles are poorly designed, due to their sensitivity and their importance, and yet they are left vulnerable by hanging externally because of the need for lower temperatures for sperm production. If testicles had been intelligently designed, protection and sperm production should have been compatible, leading to internal testicles. Likewise, the human birth canal is poorly designed, because upright walking prefers narrower hips but our large heads at birth used to lead to high maternal death rates and now require C-sections. A better design for bipedal walking is found in kangaroos, where they give birth to embryo-like young which then develop in a pouch. A similar pouch in humans would allow for the narrow hips and safe births.

(An attempt to inbed the links into the summary was made. Find the article and audio clips above)


The Neanderthal in You

A surprising new discovery has found that 1 to 4 percent of the DNA of present day humans comes from Neanderthals. This is due to breeding between modern humans and Neanderthals, which lived predominantly on the Eurasian continent until disappearing approximately 28,000 years ago. It was previously thought that human genes came nearly entirely from the African tribes which are our direct ancestors. In fact, the scientists who conducted the study claim to be shocked at the outcome, reporting that they were strongly biased against this idea before seeing the results.



Survival of the Depressedist??

Littered througout Charles Darwin´s works are illusions to extreme sickness, uncomfort, and even depression. He confesses to fits of "hysterical crying" and "not being able to do anything one day out of three." However, like most people of his time and even today, he neither saw nor attempted to see any benefit or goodness that came from this depressed state of mind. In continuing with the Darwin example, he himself admits that "work is the only thing that makes life bearable to me" and was his "sole enjoyment in life." Potentially there was something in depression that Darwin did not see?

Researchers at the University of Virginia have been examining this exact idea. Why, for example, is depression so common among the population if it should supposedly be selected against in reproduction? Researchers estimate that every year more than 7% of people will be affected by depression, making it as common as the cold. The answer to these researchers is that depression has some secret purpose, and that humans may not suffer in vain.

While the idea is still a very new and unproven idea, many scientists now think that depression can focus a brain to achieving greatness in a way that those without cannon. In the fourth century BC, Aristotle was one of the first to note that "men who have attained excellence have also suffered from melancholic disease." Researchers in Virginia have hypothecized that this inability to become distracted in everyday pleasures such as food, friends, or sex might have led these depressed people to become more focused on the pressing problem of the time - an example in which Charles Darwin fits right in.

Regardless of the causes or supposed benfits of modern and not-so-modern depression symptoms, we know that it is a disease that is extremely abundant in the modern population, and this does not fit with the theory of natural selection if it is truly a genetic trait and truly a detriment to an individual´s life.

Zach Ming

Inhereting Morality?

At the Infant Cognition Center at Yale University the researchers are conducting tests on infants that may show humans inheret a general moral instinct. In these tests babies were shown a play in which colored shapes with eyes or stuffed animals were in a situation where one helped and the other hindered an action. After the play the two puppets were placed in front of the baby and the baby would pick one up. 80% of the time the baby choose the puppet that had helped in the play. If this study indeed shows an ability to inheret basic morality it has huge implications in the world. Are some people inherently less moral than others? How should we punish criminals if they´re not completely culpable? Is this source of morality a locatable gene in our DNA? These questions would need to be answered if that is what the test proves, but there are so many variables that further studies need to be conducted. What is the contol? The babies should be shown an example where the three puppets are on the stage doing the same thing or just sitting there. Then the baby should pick between the three puppets. The different color, shape, and animal may be generally more popular among the babies. These questions could only be definitively answered if we could ask the baby why they chose that animal or shape.

There are a couple of assumptions made about babies that also need to be questioned in the article. It repeatedly states that babies appear clueless and helpless to moral and critical thinking situations. This may appear to be true, but if babies have a moral capacity, who is to say that they are not using it? In the journal Science Joseph Henrich and his study group stated that the degree of punishing unfairness and behaving kindly to strangers is higher in "large scale communities with market economies". The counterargument to this is that all people have some sense of right and wrong. However, morality is not like physics or math, because not everything is subject to a law like gravity in the universe of morality. People arrive at different answers for the simplest of questions.

The answer apparently is that it is evolutionarily beneficial to be kind to our kin and so therefore, it is possible that morality is genetically inhereted. The article correlates kindness to being subject to the laws of natural selection and so improving the fitness of the population. Here Darwin does have something to say:

"“The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,” Charles Darwin, a keen observer of human nature, tells the story of how his first son, William, was fooled by his nurse into expressing sympathy at a very young age: “When a few days over 6 months old, his nurse pretended to cry, and I saw that his face instantly assumed a melancholy expression, with the corners of his mouth strongly depressed.”"

Empathetic responses may be evolutionarily connected, but it is very hard to relate general niceness or nastiness to genetics if it does not directly effect fitness, and furthermore, intraspecies competition dictates that nastiness towards others could improve one´s personal fitness, which is the real goal of a being according to Darwin.

However, it´s always a good discussion, and if we find the "morality gene" than I guess we´ll know we can trust!



People that have questioned Evolution as the method through which life has come to exist as we know it, have always pointed to the fact that there is only circumstantial evidence. They claim that though the bone structure in the human hand and a bat's wing are identical that does not necessarily mean that they developed from a common ancestor. This is something Charles Darwin introduced when he proposed the theory of Universal Common Ancestry (UCA) in his masterpiece, On the Origin of Species (1859). In short, this theory states that every living thing on Earth can be drawn back to the same common ancestor. Also, some evolutionary biologist have questioned this in a different way, saying they agree with the principles of evolution, but the idea that there may have been multiple independent ancestries and not one singular common ancestor.

With recent advances in technology, the ability to test UCA is finally becoming possible. Biochemist Douglas Theobald from the Brandeis University is one of the first to put this to the test by comparing species from completely different kingdoms. Due to their diversity in information storing, he decided to study, “Eukarya (organisms, including humans, yeast, and plants, whose cells have a DNA-containing nucleus) as well as Bacteria and Archaea (two distinct groups of unicellular microorganisms whose DNA floats around in the cell instead of in a nucleus).” Specifically in these organisms he studied and compared 23 universally essential proteins and their presence in each of organisms.

Here is a simple summary of his results:

“Harnessing powerful computational tools and applying Bayesian statistics, Theobald found that the evidence overwhelmingly supports UCA, regardless of horizontal gene transfer or multiple origins of life. Theobald said UCA is millions of times more probable than any theory of multiple independent ancestries.”

Though I did agree with his hypothesis in support of Darwin’s theory of Universal Common Ancestry, I don’t think this test fully proves it. It continues to present the theory as the most likely of all possible options conceived of at this point in time. I am hopeful though, with the great leaps science has made in the past 10 years, that soon we will be able to have testable assertions in favor of evolution and Universal Common Ancestry.

Full Article:

Darwin Rocks.

martes, 11 de mayo de 2010

Chucky Darwizzy

Baba Brinkman, a self-styled “rap-troubadour,” with a master’s degree in English has taken on the task of educating the masses about the basics of evolution through his latest single “Natural Selection.” He became interested in rapping about evolution when he talked with Mark Pallen, an evolutionary biologist and rap enthusiast at the University of Birmingham, in Britain. Brinkman jokes that he performs “the only hip-hop show to have been peer-reviewed.” It’s clear that he is taking the information he’s rapping about seriously, which is good for the scientific community, because this is another way to make Darwin accessible for the next generation.

The portion of the rap that I found most interesting was when Brinkman took on the controversial, but very interesting question of religion and evolution. He begins by asserting that the stepwise mechanism of evolution is certainly accounts for the diversity of life on Earth. He proceeds to question the theory of Intelligent Design wondering why they would need to insert an unnecessary God into the equation. At one point he even turns the classic Intelligent Design metaphor of a watch against them, saying, “Evolution’s so easy, even a blind watchmaker could have done it.” He then proceeds to redefine how people should think about evolution in a way that will distinguish it from religion in that you don’t “believe” in evolution, but instead, you either “understand” it or you don’t. I like this distinction as a way to differentiate between my beliefs and my understandings in the world.

Take a listen. See what resonates with you.

Listen to Baba Brinkman’s New Single, “Natural Selection”:

Full Article:

Darwin Rocks.

The Island Laboratory

This article reports on an experiment conducted on different islands in the Bahamas to test the effect of predation and competition on lizards. They protected the some islands from birds (predators) by netting them off completely. They left some islands as a control, and finally they introduced snakes to a third group as an additional predator.

According to the researchers, predators seemed to kill lizards at the same rate, regardless of size or speed (random elimination from the gene pool). However, when predators were removed from the island, increased competition among lizards caused larger and faster individuals to be selected for.

This experiment displays an example of evolution that can be seen in a human lifetime.

Full article:



Darwin's Mixtape

Track 01- Charlie Darwin, The Low Anthem
This haunting song may be called Charlie Darwin but its true message is fairly cryptic. The most I can understand is that the world´s continuation of life, death and change in the ocean is inescapable, and as humans our reach exceeds our grasp. Supposedly, Darwin warned us against this, but I feel that´s artistic liscense.

Track 02- 3.5* 'til infinity, Galapagos Field Seminar
Heavy rap featuring our very own Señor Siegel and the Galapagos Field Seminar crew. It´s heavy because it´s full of references to Darwin´s theories and life. In the first edition of "The Origin of Species", Darwin used one drawing that had to be folded out of the book, (which was an expensive printing job). This drawing was a chart that he described as "descent with modification", showing how species change through generations over time. This distinction was very important because scientists at eh time were using the word evolution to describe growth of an individual. Another term that was used for species changing through generations was transmutation. Darwin used these words to distance his theories from the common usage of evolution and is probably why he never uses the word evolution in the Origin.

Track 03-Charlie, Chumbawamba
This song approaches the question of religion vs. evolution. "From the platypus to perfect Aphrodite" Darwin comes to question God and change the views of the world.

Track 04-Part Man, Part Monkey, Bruce Springsteen
Another kind of strange song about the problem descending from monkeys causes for religion.

Track 05- Proudest Monkey, Dave Matthews Band
Just because you know he´s a goof and a lot of his songs have vague and cryptic evolutionary themes.

Track 06- That Spells DNA, Jonathan Coulton
This song deals with the technical steps of replication and transcription, and how we pass on our genome to offspring. It´s also really funny because it lists amino acid sequences that might cause you problems. I don´t know how accurate these sequences are but it´s really funny.

Track 07-Multiplication, Bobby Darin
Recorded in 1961, this cheeky song borrows heavily from the idea of exponential growth. It is merely noting the fact that all animals are bound by these laws of reproduction and proliferation.

Track 08-The Rap Guide to Evolution, Baba Brinkman
"Creationism is DEAD WRONG" according to Baba Brinkman, an avid tree planter and researcher of Hip-Hop Culture in English Literature. In fact he rapped Canterbury Tales for his undergraduate thesis and later earned his Masters continuing his study of rap story telling.

Track 09-Darwin, Third Eye Blind
"The cell divides, multiplies and thrives..." sing this popular alternative band in thier urecorded song "Darwin".

Track 10-Evolution (Use your brain), My Poor Kevin
Also takes on teaching creationism in schools tauting that "it´s the truth we gotta face if we want to save our race".

I´d like to continue this mixtape, so more coming soon!

Spencer Castro

Cryptic Species

A new species of hermit crab has been discovered at our very own Hopkins Marine Station by a Stanford postdoc named Ryan Kelly. This discovery didn't come after the new crab caught Kelly's eye, however, as it was only discovered after genetic testing proved it was a different species from the other similar looking crabs also collected. The new species, dubbed Pagurus hopkinsiensis, is only found in the Monterey Bay, yet it so closely resembles a species of hairy hermit crab, P. hirsutiusculus, which is found along the coast from Alaska to Southern California, that is was only just now discovered after 122 years of studies at Hopkins. Despite is identical appearance, the testing showed that hopkinsiensis differs genetically enough so that it does not reproduce with its more common cousin. This type of species is known as cryptic species, visuallly identical but genetically distinct, and more are being discovered every year. Testing has shown that the African elephant is actually two separate species, the African Bush Elephant and the African Forest Elephant, which dont interbreed. There are many similar examples of species revealed to be separate cryptic species after genetic testing. The utility of genetic testing has added myriad evidence to the support of evolution. Although it makes no clear conclusions as to what differentiates two similar species nor does it clearly describe speciation, it does clear up the murkiness surrounding the process. The question must still be asked: how genetically different must two species be in order to be considered distinct species?


Brazil Nut Dispersal

Hola todos,

Since today's guest speaker, Juan Armesto, researches seed dispersal mechanisms and mutualisms (among other things), I thought I'd talk about this article on brazil nut regeneration for my New+Hot.
One of the trees that Darwin undoubtedly encountered in his travels in the Amazon was the brazil nut tree, which can grow up to 50 meters high and live 500 years. Nowadays, current agroforestry practices have made the brazil nut an important source of income for communities in the Amazon. However, the harvest of the seeds seems to have an impact on the behavior of the animals that eat them. Agoutis (a type of large rodent) are supposedly the only animals that can actually eat the seeds, in a mutualistic fashion of gnawing through the hard outer shell to access the nuts, which at the same time gives the seeds the chance to grow. But the agoutis' manner of consuming the nuts changes with the availability of the seeds and other food sources. For example, in the wet season, when there is a lot of food around, they tend to cache the seeds for later use, which sometimes results in the seeds' germinating and producing more trees. But in the dry season, when food is less abundant, they tend to just eat the seeds as they find them. Harvesting brazil nuts replicates the conditions the agoutis find in the dry season, so they tend to just eat the seeds; this could explain why intensely-harvested forests tend to have fewer juvenile trees.
Possible conservation implications are that harvesters should make specific efforts to promote regeneration of the trees, by planting seeds in optimum germination locations, rather than leaving their future source of income up to chance-- and rodents.



jueves, 6 de mayo de 2010

Darwin's Beetle

Cool video on the Darwin's Beetle of Patagonia, Chile


Oil Spills and Wildlife

The recent Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the shore of Lousiana brings back memories of the devastation left behind after the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989. There are serious concerns as the the effects the current spill will have on gulf wildlife, everything ranging from the death of plancton and algae, the toxification of shellfish, and even the suffocation of whales and dolphins. This concern stems from the unfortunate but enormous knowledge we have about these effects thanks to the history of our oil industry. Studies from the twenty years after the Valdez spill have revealed some of the longterm and irreversible aftermath on coastal habitats. A study done by the Centre for Wildlife Ecology, Simon Fraser University, British Columbia has shown that even 20 years later, organisms are ingesting small amounts of oil, with effects reverberating through the food chain. The main focus of the study was the harlequin duck. "In addition to the higher likelihood of exposure due to their habitat, harlequin ducks have a number of characteristics that makes them particularly sensitive to oil pollution. Their diet consists of invertebrates that live in this area and have a limited ability to metabolize residual oil. Also, harlequin ducks have a life history strategy based on high survival rates, as well as a small body size when compared to other sea ducks." A different study done by Temple University has determined that the rate of natural biodegradation of the oil has slowed considerably due to low levels of oxygen and nutrients, as the oil has sunk into the beaches. The bacteria that have evolved to metabolize oil require conditions of high oxygen concentration to quickly digest the oil, which the pristine environment of Alaska can not provide. Biodegradation rates that were at once 70% are now down to 4%. The oil, which was supposed to have been completely biodegraded by now, still lingers. When reflecting upon the status of the Valdez shoreline, the future of the gulf coast looks dim, as this spill keeps spewing oil from the well by the day.

For an article on the current spill in the gulf:

For the study on Harlequin Duck:

For the study on the rate of biodegradation:


Rap Guide to Evolution

Perhaps inspired by or perhaps the inspiration of previous Stanford classes on Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution, Baba Brinkman explains the theory in a whole new way. He has a masters degree in English and uses it to rap to students while expousing the theory of natural selection and evolution as first theorized by Charles Darwin. Topics of his raps include mitochondria, genetic drift, sexual selection, and meme. His goal for the raps is not only to entertain and educate but to show that evolution is something that should be embraced and celebrated rather than feared.

The language of the raps are witty, up-to-date, and for the most part scientifically accurate. He not only pokes fun at creationists but also scientists, the audience, himself and hip hop in general. For one educated on the subject, there are many modern jokes and new lingo terms to learn. For someone new to the theory, it is very easy to learn a thing or two. He is a canadian who has been touring in Europe but will be in New York for a few days this week.

Zach Ming

Pope John Paul II and Evolution

Today I decided to take a look at my own religious background and examine the Catholic Church's view on evolution. Considering the fact that there are numerous issues where the church's official stance differs significantly from mine, I was expecting something similar in this situation. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the last three popes have supported the theory of evolution as the explanation for human life. Specifically, I looked at a 1996 letter from Pope John Paul II entitled: "MESSAGE TO THE PONTIFICAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES: ON EVOLUTION." Included below are some quotes from the message that I think anybody interested in science and religion should read.

Acknowledgement of the Theory of Evolution:
"...findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis. In fact it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines. The convergence in the results of these independent studies—which was neither planned nor sought—constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory."

The difference between humans and other creatures:
"The Council recalled that 'man is the only creature on earth that God wanted for its own sake.' In other words, the human person cannot be subordinated as a means to an end, or as an instrument of either the species or the society; he has a value of his own. He is a person. By this intelligence and his will, he is capable of entering into relationship, of communion, of solidarity, of the gift of himself to others like himself. St. Thomas observed that man's resemblance to God resides especially in his speculative intellect, because his relationship with the object of his knowledge is like God's relationship with his creation."

On the definition of 'human' in the continuous context of evolution:
"With man, we find ourselves facing a different ontological order — an ontological leap, we could say. But in posing such a great ontological discontinuity, are we not breaking up the physical continuity which seems to be the main line of research about evolution in the fields of physics and chemistry? An appreciation for the different methods used in different fields of scholarship allows us to bring together two points of view which at first might seem irreconcilable. The sciences of observation describe and measure, with ever greater precision, the many manifestations of life, and write them down along the time-line. The moment of passage into the spiritual realm is not something that can be observed in this way—although we can nevertheless discern, through experimental research, a series of very valuable signs of what is specifically human life. But the experience of metaphysical knowledge, of self-consciousness and self-awareness, of moral conscience, of liberty, or of aesthetic and religious experience—these must be analyzed through philosophical reflection, while theology seeks to clarify the ultimate meaning of the Creator's designs."



Darwin´s Study of Hermaphroditic Plants Inspires Study of Heterostyly

Darwin himself stated in "Different Forms of Flowers" that the unique morphology of hetersylous plants, plants with two or more forms of flowers containing both male (anther) and female (stigma) parts encourages cross breeding. However, what Darwin did not know is that the chemical recognition of a flower´s own pollen prevents self-fertilization.

From buckwheat to cocaine, plants have independently evolved heterostyly over 40 times. However, the genes that control heterostyly are still unknown. Whith recent developments in molecular biology techniques, researchers today hope to prove that these plants inheret their heterostylic characteristics in a Mendelian manner.

Spencer Castro

American Journal of Botany (2010, May 4). 'Different forms of flowers' continues to fascinate: Darwin's influential study inspires research on breeding system called heterostyly. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 6, 2010, from­ /releases/2010/04/100429173003.htm

martes, 4 de mayo de 2010

Darwin's Facial Experiments

One of Darwin's less famous books, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animal, mentions an experiment conducted by Darwin himself, in which he asked subjects to describe the emotions found on unlabeled pictures of human faces. A new historical study recently published in the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences revisits this experiment, determined to be the first ever single-blind study of human perception of emotional expression. Darwin selected 11 pictures out of the 65 available from French neurologist G.B.A. Duchenne's own studies on facial muscles and emotions. He then randomly showed these images to 24 subjects, without title or label, and asked them to describe the emotion. He recorded the results in three data tables and used them to determine which of the images associated the most agreement most with the emotion displayed. The images that made the cut were later published in Darwin's book. Since the experiment was hardly mentioned in the book, little was known about Darwin's methods before this historival study was conducted by Peter J. Snyder. The study also draws parallels between Darwin's experiment and contemporary methods used to test for autism and schizophrenia.


Mammoth Blood Recreated

This article I found at reports on a study published yesterday in Nature Genetics in which researchers managed to recreate hemoglobin cells of the extinct Siberian mammoth. The DNA was taken from the bones of a mammoth that was approximately 25,000 to 43,000 years old. The process of recreating the hemoglobin is described succinctly in the article:

"The team converted the mammoth hemoglobin DNA sequences into RNA, and inserted them into modern-day E. coli bacteria, which then manufactured the authentic mammoth protein."

According to one of the professors involved in the study, the resulting hemoglobin is identical to what would be found in the actual mammoth when it was living.

One of the most interesting discoveries to come from this study was the mammoth's adaptation to arctic conditions. Apparently, this animal had the ability to lower the temperature in its four legs so as to reduce heat lost to snow and ice.


Senda Darwin!

Hola todos!

This weekend we discovered people continuing the good work of Chuckie D down in Chiloe- La Fundación Senda Darwin ( They are a group of scientists and educators working to research, conserve, and teach the biology and ecology of Chiloe. They have a biology field station and nature center just outside of Ancud in northern Chiloe, and a bunch of trails that you can walk on (and biologists standing around that will tell you interesting things if you ask nicely). Most of their trails are not terribly well-marked, and/or flooded, and/or lead to places where I don't think we were technically supposed to go, but it's still a pretty cool place and the people there are very friendly and interested in Darwin, ecology, etc. They also apparently have the Darwin frog there, but we couldn't find one :(


Fundación Senda Darwin

Darwin's Footpath Foundation works in Chiloe to preserve local wildlife and is where biological investigations in ecology and biodiversity are conducted. The center sits just North of Ancud city, and has worked to promote management and conservation of forests and species, such as a local wild cat, called la huina. They determined that the cat needs a territory of at least 300 hectares to continue its typical hunting patterns. They are also interested in protecting the native terrestrial bird, the chucao. However, their main focus is the conservation of old growth forest while balancing the needs of the locals. For example, the Cypress tree is excellent for building water-proof roofs, but because of this it has become an endangered species of plant. Now the Cypress is protected by Chilean law.

The group also possess's its own private reserve to conduct ecological investigations. Supposedly, this is where Darwin spent some time when the Beagle visited Chiloe in 1834. They believe their findings are immediately pertinent to the preservation of resources on the island, and work to further educate the local population on subjects such as Darwin.

Spencer Castro