jueves, 10 de junio de 2010

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin - David Quammen

This book is devoted to a rather specific time in the life of evolution’s discoverer, Charles Darwin. From his return on his monumental voyage on The Beagle until his publication of his masterpiece The Origin of Species, this book seeks to explain and re-live those 20 years. What this book mostly seeks to display about Charles are his inner emotions during what were some of the most productive and difficult times in his life. During this period he experienced marriage, children, the death of children, harrowing sickness, and much interaction with scientists from across the world. Quammen seeks to interpret Darwin’s feeling and thus gain motives for his actions through the analysis of letters, books, and outside accounts. Sometimes he hits the nail right on the head such as when describing what may seem to be the ultimate marriage to Emma. However, as he describes, religious tension and deep sadness most likely was an unspoken skeleton in the closet for the entirety of the marriage. They were still the rock of each other’s lives as highlighted through another emotionally trying experience, the death of his daughter Annie. This time, the two could barely stand to be away from each other and the author readily conveys this emotion.
However, in other aspects it seems the author wants to read in too much to Darwin’s life and/or simply inserts needless commentary. Sometimes Quammen will paraphrase a quote of Darwin’s for no apparent reason. Sometimes he will make baseless statements after a barrage of facts that seems to be lacking any substantial evidence. The point of the book is really to give the reader an emotional attachment to Darwin and the pressure that he must have felt in preparing to release a book that he knew would change the world. The reader is expecting this event for the whole book and thus it does present a surprising element of suspense. After reading, one will definitely feel more emotionally attached to Darwin in a way that is not possible through the autobiography, and one will have an appreciation for some of the events that may have made Mr. Darwin reluctant.


The Greatest Show on Earth – Richard Dawkins

In Charles Darwin’s masterpiece The Origin of Species, he was the first person to propose natural selection as a mechanism for the process of evolution. Through ample studies and modern advancements such as DNA, we know that his theory is true in more ways than he could have fathomed. However, what we also know is that all of his ideas were not correct. In The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins attempts to recreate an argument for evolution that uses modern examples, experiments, and data. The book was written on and in honor of the 150 year anniversary from the publication of The Origin, and it very nearly mirrors the original outline of domestication, variation, limited resources… In this book Richard Dawkins maintains the rather snarky attitude that he is known for when it comes to dealing with people who don’t believe in evolution. While he presents mountains of modern evidence toward the conclusion of evolution, he does not talk about many of the areas on which evolutionary biology is still relatively naïve. He addresses the arguments of creationists which is one area that Darwin did not have the chance to dwell upon as I doubt he foresaw this being such an issue over 150 years after his publication.
Overall, this is the book that you want to read if you are a non or budding scientist that wants the evidence for evolution presented to you in an easily comprehendible manner. Having some background on the subject is helpful but not by any means necessary. This book explores issues such as domesticated breeding, forced laboratory evolution, examination of differences in DNA between related species, examination of the fossil record, and much more. It is not all encompassing but is still a fairly comprehensive book towards the foundation in modern science’s acceptance of Charles Darwin’s original theory.


martes, 8 de junio de 2010

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin

After reading The Origin of Species and The Voyage of the Beagle, I found Charles Darwin's autobiography to be the liveliest of the three works. Its condensed format is likely responsible for the lively feel, with interesting anecdotes filling the book. His self-effacing writing (he calls his autobiography "short and dull") in many parts causes one to think: is this an attempt at humor, modesty, or honesty?

Darwin is clearly aiming to take an analytical view of his life. In his introductory paragraph, he says "I have attempted to write... as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life." His conclusion consists of recapitulating in a few sentences why a man with such "moderate qualities" should have had such a great influence in science. However, this book is not only about asking "why Darwin?". Also included are many amusing anecdotes, especially in his childhood. He talks about being tricked by friends, acting cruelly once by kicking a puppy (but not very hard), and taking long walks alone. Whether you are looking for more insight into Darwin's personality, a few good stories, or some comments on reactions to his master work, his autobiography is a good read.

The Voyage of the Beagle

The voyage of the Beagle when viewed in the correct light is like a treasure hunt. In contrast to The Origin of Species, this book was written by a much younger Charles Darwin who was feeding off his passion for geology and natural science rather than trying to convince the community of the reality of natural selection. Throughout the book, Darwin makes hundreds of observations; the reader's job (besides enjoying the descriptions of places, people, and animals around the world) is to determine which of these are important to Darwin's development as a scientist and as the pioneer of the Theory of Natural Selection. In his lengthy descriptions of the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America, one can see his interest in nature vs. nurture. Are the "Fuegians" genetically savage, or are their vile actions caused by the environment in which they live? Darwin seems to edge towards the latter. Darwin of course chronicles the hundreds of animal and plant specimens he collects and sends back to England, although many times he does not seem to know how to classify them. In fact, he does not learn until after the trip that the various birds he collected on various Galapagos islands were all finches. For reasons such as these, it is best to read The Voyage of the Beagle after familiarizing oneself with the later life of Charles Darwin. In this way, we can better see just how deeply the voyage affected his development as a scientist.


Darwin's Origin of Species

Having recently read The Autobiography of Charles Darwin and The Voyage of the Beagle, I found that Janet Browne's book Darwin's Origin of Species did not greatly enhance my knowledge of Charles Darwin. Most of the facts and events of Darwin's life presented in the book are widely known and are included in other biographies. While Browne does a good job condensing the information from Darwin's works into a more readable format for the casual reader, I felt that analysis on Darwin's life was limited. I would have been more interested in Browne's thoughts on certain Darwin quotes than simply a regurgitation of the facts.

I found the book most interesting when Janet Browne provided a historical context for events in Darwin's life, as this were largely missing from his autobiography. Perhaps the best example of this is in Browne's description of Darwin's return to England after five years on the Beagle. She explains: "Darwin... could not help but notice how much England had changed. Railways were snaking across the land where stagecoaches had once travelled, towns crept relentlessly outwards, shops, chapels, and newly built churches sprouted everywhere. This was the England of Dickens's classic tales."


lunes, 7 de junio de 2010

Book Review: Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life by Niles Eldredge

“Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life” (2005) does a good job of presenting an account of Charles Darwin’s life that is grounded in the primary sources left by Darwin himself. I think at times Eldredge doesn’t question the record Darwin has left us enough, but still the narrative is consistent and thorough. Let it be clear that I do love Darwin and find his life very interesting, but though this portion of the book was well done, since it stayed so faithful to Darwin’s primary texts, I don’t think anything he presented there was revolutionary or unique to his book.

Thus, for me, the most interesting and valuable portion of the book was the final chapter, which was dedicated to disproving Intelligent Design as an alternative scientific theory for evolution. The precision with which Eldredge goes through this very controversial subject is impeccable. Eldredge summarized all of my disagreements around Intelligent Design into a succinct message that anyone with an open-mind can understand. If like me, you were searching for someone to help you sort through your thoughts on Intelligent Design, this book is a must read.

My Review on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Darwin-Discovering-Tree-Niles-Eldredge/product-reviews/0393059669/ref=cm_cr_dp_all_summary?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1&sortBy=bySubmissionDateDescending

Darwin Rocks. Eldredge is worth a read as well.


Book Review: The Autobiography of Charles Darwin

“The Autobiography of Charles Darwin” (1958 - Barlow, unexpurgated) provides an interesting insight into the life and mind of the renowned biologist, Charles Darwin. Though I think it is commonly held in too high regard as the final authority on the life of Darwin, I still believe it is an interesting and important text when read through the correct lens. I found it a meaningful source when considering it as a text about how Darwin wanted to be remembered. Whether or not Darwin actually can precisely recall intricate details from his childhood like praying to God to help him run faster is not as important as what that means about why the man who was writing the story felt this was an important detail to aid. Through this lens I feel you can learn a lot from this book about who Charles Darwin, the man, was and not just think about him in terms of his theories and his impact on society.

I found the restored version very interesting and would have been disappointed to read an older edition, which did not include some passages related to his private life as well as others on his religious views. Read it in the form that Charles intended you to!

My Review on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Autobiography-Charles-Darwin-1809-1882/product-reviews/1450524370/ref=cm_cr_dp_all_summary?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1&sortBy=bySubmissionDateDescending

Darwin Rocks.


Book Review: Voyage of the Beagle

History remembers Charles Darwin’s time on the H.M.S. Beagle as his journey through the Galapagos Islands, but there was so much more to his amazing adventure. In The Voyage of the Beagle (1839), Charles Darwin recounts the five-year span over which he traveled throughout the world and made the observations that would be the foundation for his scholarly works for the rest of his life. This book takes you all over the world as you get to experience the geological and biological observations of Charles Darwin.

The detail with which this book is written provides an interesting insight into Darwin’s thought process: you are able to see the world as he does, which is a remarkable thing. For example, I can still recall his vivid description of the fossilized shell that he encountered when crossing the Andes from Chile to Argentina as though it were something I personally witnessed. Though you may be wary to read something written by Charles Darwin if you’ve been exposed to his dry, meticulous writing style in his masterpiece, On the Origin of Species (1859), rest assured: this is a different sort of Charles Darwin. The Voyage is a fast-paced and fun read as you recount adventure after adventure with Charles Darwin to show you the way.

My Review on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Voyage-Beagle-Charles-Researches-Classics/product-reviews/014043268X/ref=cm_cr_pr_viewpnt_sr_5?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=0&filterBy=addFiveStar

Darwin Rocks.

domingo, 6 de junio de 2010

Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers

Dr. Robert Sapolsky at Stanford University wrote this book explaining how our stress mechanism that was essential for our survival in the world of predators and prey, but is now killing us in our modern world of psychological stressors functions. The concept is:
You wake up from a resting heart rate and mild levels of nerve activity and a lion pounces on you. You jump immediately as nerve impulses shoot through your body spiking your heart rate and injecting tons of hormones into target organs. Your bladder relaxes, your leg muscles tighten, and you may vomit that heavy meal you ate. Your body is losing the dead weight as you start to run. A large chunk of your side is missing and it appears as if you can see your intestine but you can't feel any of it because receptors are being blocked. You can worry about pain when you're not going to die immediately.
Now you're staring at a blank word document. You may want to vomit but I hope you don't piss yourself. Tons of hormones that are toxic to your body at elevated levels are pumped to target organs. Your heart races and you break out in a cold sweat. The response is not nearly as severe but then it lasts for the 6-12 hours it takes you to crank out that 20 page paper. You don't increase your blood flow to increase circulation of oxygenated blood and blood containing elevated levels of hormones pools in various places in your body. This response is triggered by many common things throughout your day, causing your body to have little life-or-death crises. The sound of your alarm, the minute hand on the clock, forgotten assignment slowly accumulate as little detrimental effects to your health.
The activation of your sympathetic nervous system leaves levels of hormones that won't allow your parasympathetic nervous system to put you to sleep. You develop insomnia, your immune system struggles, and your body tries to store energy for a crisis in the form of fat. Now your heart labors harder every time you activate these stress responses and it either starts to try to build muscle causing a thickened septum wall and smaller chambers with less blood flow, or there are platelet globules that formed on tears in the artery due to heightened pressure and get stuck in the valves or the brain.
It's an extreme spiraling cycle of stress and increasing incapability with handling it.

Spencer Castro

viernes, 4 de junio de 2010

John Herschel & the Mystery of Mysteries

Hola chicos,

So I the biography of Darwin that I was reading made mention a few times of the John Herschel fellow, so I thought I'd do a New & Hot on him and his influence on Darwin.

John Herschel was primarily an astronomer, and also a wildly popular scientist back in the day (the day being the first half of the 19th century). He was in fact so popular that he moved to South Africa to get away from the mobs of fans. Ok that's a little bit of an exaggeration. But not much- he said he was quite happy to leave the pressure of living in England. The main reason he was there, though (and why Darwin and Fitzroy could stop in and say hi to him on their way back to Britain) was to study the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. While he was in South Africa though, he and his wife decided (as people from this time period so often seem to do, because they were just so ridiculously multi-talented) to take up botany, making drawings of the local plants using a combination of new photography techniques and technology. He was also like Humboldt a little bit, it turns out, in that he advocated doing science by carefully collecting data, recording observations, and then using inductive reasoning to come up with theories to explain them. I mean, this is (I'm pretty sure) how we do science nowadays, but I guess back then it was like a big leap or something. And Darwin was affected by Herschel's thoughts on this subject as well. Herschel also read Lyell's Principles of Geology, and his quote that Darwin used about the "mystery of mysteries" was actually from a letter that Herschel sent to Lyell. Darwin might also have gotten it while they were hanging out in South Africa, though.
Anyway, Herschel seems like a pretty interesting guy. Darwin was buried near him in Westminster.


jueves, 3 de junio de 2010

Joan Roughgarden

Joan Roughgarden is an evolutionary biologist at Stanford that challenges Charles Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. Roughgarden is calling for an overhaul of the way science defines the mechanism for natural selection, which Darwin introduced as sexual selection. In her most recent book, The Genial Gene (2009), she has proposed an alternative theory, social selection, which is focused on the prevalence of teamwork and co-operation throughout nature, rather than the narrative from sexual selection which presents the world as fundamentally at conflict and individualistic. Her major opposition has come from modern-day Darwin theologians who feel that her examples, which she claims are counter to the sexual selection narrative, can all fit into it. They firmly believe that Darwin was limited by his times, but fundamentally, he was correct and thus his theory merely needs to be adapted to the times.
In a class I took from her in the fall we spent a great deal of time debating the need for social selection, while also questioning whether natural selection needs a similar overhaul. In the end the distinguishing factor between natural selection and sexual selection was the validity of the fundamental principles. For natural selection, the fundamental principle is that evolution occurs through a step-by-step mechanism of random mutations that survive and spread throughout the population if they give the individual an evolutionary advantage. If this is true, than Darwin was right and everything since can build off of his idea. In sexual selection, the fundamental principle is that the default behavior of nature is selfishness and conflict.
An interesting side note, which alas, never seems to be deemed unimportant, is the personal life of Joan Roughgarden. She is a M2F transsexual and has admitted, “she has an agenda: to develop a theory with room for outsiders like gays and transsexuals.” This agenda, however, does not mean she’s wrong. The question remains, what is the fundament principal of life, co-operation or competition?

Review of The Genial Gene: http://www.theamericanscholar.org/the-peacock-problem-by-long/
Impact: http://autogynephiliac.blogspot.com/2009/12/joan-roughgarden-on-social-evolution.html

Still I think Darwin Rocks. Right or wrong, he got the conversation started.


Richard Dawkins and Children

One of the most well known modern evolutionary authors is Richard Dawkins. He has written such best sellers as ¨The Selfish Gene¨ and ¨The God Dilusion.¨ With his next book however, he is looking for a slightly different genre and audience. He plans to write a children´s book that addresses what he views as ¨putting unscientific views in the minds of our children.¨ He remembers growing up reading children´s books where princes turned into frogs and things is now debating whether this has a ¨pernicious¨ effect on the minds of our young. Most recently, he has condemned Harry Potter even though he admits that he has not read the books themselves.

What he aims to accomplish with one or more children´s books is to help children to learn to ¨confront and deal with the evidence. He does not hold children at fault for not being taught these things, but even sees children that are exposed to these types of books as "abused." He even goes on to claim that this type of abuse is actually worse than conventional child abuse and that his books will help to remedy this problem. He claims that these are the types of books that he would have wanted to read when he was a kid. Will others agree??



Zach Ming

martes, 1 de junio de 2010

Chimp or Human?

Last fall, the discovery of a new skeleton in Ethiopia was hailed as a breakthrough in early Human evolution. The skeleton, classified as Ardipithecus ramidus and nicknamed "Ardi", is a million years older than the famous "Lucy." Ardi is believed to be one of the first to walk on two feet instead of knuckles, and is believed to have lived in woodland areas. This first shocked scientists who originally believed that humans started walking upright when they moved from tress onto the grasslands of the savannah. Now the entire study is being questioned as the classification of the skeleton is being doubted. Some scientists are starting to see if whether the skeleton is actually an ancestor of the modern chimp instead of modern Humans. This would require a stretch, others believe, because it would mean that the ape reverted back to more ancstral morphologies when evolving to become the chimpanzees we know. Some are also studying the surrounding fossils to determine the exact flora that surrounded Ardi during its life. The thoughts that it lived in a woodland area is being explored further as the fossilized vegetation may show otherwise. Missing Link? Or two new spaces to fill?


Link: http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hbeoT7UVejy3nQodKBfYAaQ28N_gD9FVB6L00

George R. Price: Altruism and Evolution

I satisfied my Darwinophilia today with an article on George Price (1922-1975), a geneticist and evolutionary theorist. Price contended that altruism in nature could be explained by evolution. His equation, creatively named the Price Equation, provided a model for this pattern. Altruism occurs in his model when a certain action increases both the fitness of the organism and the average fitness of its population (or possibly, community).

Price diesplayed altruism in his own life, at one point housing four homeless people in his house, as he slept in his office. Mentally unstable for much of the later part of his life, he commited suicide at the age of 52.

Links: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/Selflessness-of-strangers/624232


Darwin on the Stage Once Again

Throughout the quarter we have dedicated a fair amount of time to debating “The Wait.” This period in Darwin’s life is the 20 years between when he first began developing his theory of Evolution while aboard the H.M.S. Beagle and when he finally published his masterpiece, On the Origin of Species (1859). We have discussed many different possibilities that likely worked together to yield this wait, including his sickness, his other academic ambitions, his fear of being wrong and the list goes on. In the play Trumpery by Peter Parnell, which is now being put on in the Olney Theater, the long wait is attributed to an internal conflict within Darwin between Science and Religion.

Though the question of his religious struggles may not be supported by much information, it does present an interesting and compelling dialogue. A famous quote from the play comes as Darwin says, “If I finish my book, I’m a killer. I murder God.” For me this is a very interesting idea, because I live by my faith, but also understand and agree with creation through the forces of Evolution. I do not see God and the literal word of the Bible as linked together, but at the time of Darwin that was the stance of the church. Then if you were to image Darwin as a person of devout faith, he would certainly have had to struggle with whether his theory was worth destroying faith. I believe, however, that faith has survived, but the question does remain, is there a scientific discovery that would destroy my faith? At the moment I think of faith and science as controlling two different worlds of my life, but still I don’t want to deny science the opportunity to try and answer the questions that I have answered through my faith.

The final piece of the article that I would like to touch upon is the director, Jim Petosa’s comments about why Darwin. He talked about how Darwin “has made an enormous impact on the modern worldview.” I think an important part of Petosa’s comment that isn’t overtly said is that Darwin did not just change the way the scientific community saw the world. He is very clear that Darwin changed the way the entire world saw the view. I think this change was both in the general population’s understanding of the process of evolution, as well as their understanding of what is certain. Charles Darwin helped people to realize that just because we’ve always thought in a particular way, that doesn’t mean that we are thinking about it in the right way.

Full Article: http://baltimore.broadwayworld.com/article/TRUMPERY_Plays_Olney_Theatre_Center_6974_20100514

Darwin Rocks.


World Food Famine??

The cassava plant, also known as manioc, tapioca, and yuca could be facing the worst threat of disease in its history. A virus called brown streak is spreading at an astronomical rate and could threaten millions of East African lives as it destroys the crop. After rice and wheat, cassava is the world´s third most source of calories. The virus has been around for over 20 years, but it was not until 2004 that a mutant form of the virus appeared in central Africa. Two years ago, scientists and researchers began to become increasingly alarmed by the rate of the spread of the virus. The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation also realized this and donated $27 million dollars towards research on the virus. If a solution is not found and the virus continues its exponential spreading and growth, it could cause a famine not known since the Irish potato famine of the 1840´s. The plant is in part so popular because of its extreme durability in droughts and general farming neglect. However, it is no match for the virus.

Scientists are extremely worried about the cuttings that farmers sell to one another that may help to cause the spread of the virus. At the best of the worst case scenarios, scientists hope to contain the virus in Africa and prevent it from spreading to Thailand, Brazil, Indonesia, and-or China. However, this scenario would still cause donors to have to pour billions of dollars in aid to help feed the starving continent and prevent potential deadly civil wars. Research is continuing to find a cure or resistant strain to the virus, but until that happens we can only wait and see.


Zach Ming

"Intelligent Design. That´s one goal of synthetic biology"

Olivia Judson, of The New York times believes that the recent creation of the genome of a creature that no longer exists anywhere on the Earth is the first baby step to new life-forms. Supposedly, we will sit around the company table and brainstorm what kind of lifeform we would like to design.

Examples f how we have already improved on gene sequences iclude the green flourescent protein naturally expressed in jellies. This gene has been altered so as to flouresce more brightly, and is used extensively to tag proteins in cell biology.

The first genome to be fully constructed was poliovirus 8 years ago. Now we can sequence bacteria and have created new bacteria that do not exist in nature. However, designing a life form on our own is still very much impossible, because biological systems are too complex and always have unpredictable components that, when attempting to copy them will behave in unexpected ways. We can make proteins, but we cannot be sure how this new protein will fold and how it will interact with other proteins. A good metaphor is that we can make all the parts, but still need to use an existing factory to build them. We also cannot add all of the machinery to a vacant cytoplasm and expect it to start building proteins.

This only deals with the mechanics of the organism. What about trying to wire the circuitry? We can´t even begin to understand side affects of chemical levels on the nervous system. The chances of creating something that doesn´t have devastating gliches is very small. We have begun to build molecules that can store information just like DNA, but they are read differently by the machinery of the cell. This allows us to write our own code, but we still have no idea how it will be expressed.

With these psuedo-DNA structures man may create a "second nature" with animals that cannot interact with the animals of the wild instantly, instead of taking thousands of years. Supposedly, the "bannisters" of the DNA strand are far more important than previously thought and are essential for any information-storing molecule.

The article concludes by saying that there are many uses for designer organisms, and they may be very dangerous or detrimental to man, but they will also help us better understand nature as we know it.


Japan will make Pókemon before anybody knows what happened,