Happy Darwin Day!

I am A) exhausted from a long day, and B) sick as a dog. Or maybe two dogs. I can’t breathe, I can’t think, I can’t … something.

But it’s Darwin Day today, to I get to link to two earlier bits, both of which deserve it. One is a song addressed to Darwin himself, letting him know how things turned out.

Excerpt:

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin, take a look around today—
You might recognize the path we took, cos you showed us the way.
We will celebrate your influence with unabashed delight;
Happy Birthday Charles Darwin, you were right!

The other was my report of a Darwin Day talk (by Daniel Dennett), which turned into the single best comment thread in the history of the interwebs. Seriously. I’d give you a sample, but I’d rather you approach it like the first people to see the Grand Canyon, walking up on foot and finding an astonishing landscape, rather than passing judgment based on a postcard. But yeah, the single greatest comment thread ever.

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin! (of course, by now, it is the day after his birth in the country of his birth. Oh, well.)

Genesis II (Or III, or IV, or…)

A puddle full of chemicals
Was baking in the sun
When some combined a different way
And new life was begun
It replicated, once or twice
Till now there were a bunch—
They chanced on an amoeba, though,
Which ate them all for lunch.

Some inorganic molecules
Embedded in some clay
Began a new reaction, and
They sprang to life one day
They started reproducing
Was it brand new life? Well, yup…
Till they found a paramecium
Which promptly ate them up.

It is said, abiogenesis
Is really very rare
Perhaps it happens all the time
Without observers there
The only time we’ll know for sure
That brand-new life begins…
Is when it meets established forms
But this time, new life wins.

I don’t know where this one came from, but it took all of 10 minutes to write itself. A new, successful mutation, I suppose.

Are there any biologists reading this who can tell me if my thinking is off? It seems to me that the various abiogenesis experiments (think Miller-Urey) have one fatal flaw–they are miniscule in comparison to the real world. In the real world, we have the same, or similar, experiments happening all the time. There are theories of life beginning in tidal pools, or in a clay substrate, or in geysers or mudpots, or steam vents… well, why not all of the above, and more? The world is a big place; unlikely events happen all the time, in large enough populations. Of course, any abiogenesis event that happens now has a serious disadvantage: the parking spot is already taken. And so, of course we don’t see abiogenesis happening in the world around us; something else has already snacked on it–probably a bacterium.

But (because time is patient), isn’t it possible that one of these times, Life 2.0 will disagree with that bacterium. Then eat it. And its cousins. And establish a toehold on the planet. Could already be pockets of Life 2.0 v1-vn in places we have not yet looked. (Or maybe not; this is idle speculation.) It took a staggeringly long time for our own ancestors to get beyond that stage, so there is no reason to suspect we will be alive to answer this question… but rare things do happen. Not just a mutation of a current life form, but something altogether different. Wouldn’t that be astonishing? Wouldn’t that just scare you to death?

I gotta work on the screenplay.

Because. Just Because.

The American Dialect Society, which does this sort of thing, has voted that the 2013 Word of the Year is “Because”. Because reasons:

Presiding at the Jan. 3 voting session were ADS Executive Secretary Allan Metcalf of MacMurray College, and Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society and executive producer of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. Zimmer is also the language columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

“This past year, the very old word because exploded with new grammatical possibilities in informal online use,” Zimmer said. “No longer does because have to be followed by of or a full clause. Now one often sees tersely worded rationales like ‘because science’ or ‘because reasons.’ You might not go to a party ‘because tired.’ As one supporter put it, because should be Word of the Year ‘because useful!’”

“Because” was a runaway winner, which I think is wonderful, given that its competition included “twerk” and “selfie”.

The announcement is actually a pretty neat read, with the top five vote-getters in the “Word of the Year” category, but also “Most Useful”, “Most Creative”, “Most Unnecessary”, “Most Outrageous”, “Most Euphemistic”, “Most Likely To Succeed”, “Least Likely To Succeed”, and “Most Productive”. For people who have a fondness for words, it’s great fun.

Besides, I have a fond place in my hearts for “Because”.

Because

I’ve examined evolution, and I think I understand
Though the evidence is shaky, still I think the theory’s grand
But it’s only just a theory, so it’s only just a start
And an open-minded person should try picking it apart.
No belief without a reason! Give me proof of what you claim!
And the more I look, the more I see the evidence is lame!
When considering a tangled bank, I choose to see God’s Laws
And the reason I believe it? Just because.

Charles Darwin drew a picture of an ever-branching tree
From the earliest of creatures all the way to you and me
Other limbs produced the fishes, beetles, lizards, monkeys, ants,
Paramecia, bacteria, creationists and plants;
He supported it with evidence of every kind he could
Which I’ve critically examined, as a thinking person should;
Now I know that he’s mistaken in the picture that he draws
And the reason I believe it? Just because.

If you analyze it critically, as science says we must
You’ll find laws of physics broken, so the theory is a bust:
The second thermo-something law is busted into pieces
By the fact that evolution means that entropy decreases!
And random changes couldn’t make the creatures that we find,
So the evidence is clear, that we cannot be un-designed!
With castles out of playing-cards and armies made of straws
There’s the reason I believe it: Just because.

Now, with Darwin and his evolution clearly in the tank
There is only one alternative, if I am to be frank;
That’s the theory found in Genesis, the Holy Word of God,
And with natural selection out, creation gets the nod.
But we can’t be disrespectful to our deeply held belief,
So our critical examination, this time, must be brief
There’s no clothing on this emperor, not even filmy gauze—
But the reason I believe it? Just because.

Sure, the logic may be iffy, and the evidence is slim—
Who created the creator? And then, who created him?
Why the Genesis creation? Why not something else instead?
Can we guarantee the story is exactly what God said?
Is it literal or metaphor, or maybe outright fiction?
What’s the proper course of action when we find a contradiction?
I’m ignoring any nagging doubt within me where it gnaws
And the reason I believe it? Just because.

If I’m right, I go to heaven, which I’d really like to do
But I’ll go to hell for sure if I suspect that it’s untrue
It’s a simple little wager, there’s no reason to think twice:
You get punished if you’re naughty, you get presents if you’re nice
From the guy who watches all of us, from there behind his beard
(And who cares if it’s millennia since last time he appeared?)
And so, even if it’s really just a grown-up’s Santa Claus
Well, the reason I believe it? Just because.

Resistant Strains

The nasty microscopic bugs
We try to fight with special drugs
Consider penicillin just a problem to be solved
We dose ourselves at every cough
And kill a large percentage off
Forgetting that survivors mean the critters have evolved

And now, the CDC explains,
We’re dealing with resistant strains
And every day that passes brings us “closer to the cliff.”
But people are resistant, too,
To do the things we have to do
When drugs no longer work for us… there’s no more talk of “if”.

Poisoned Baits Drive Cockroach Evolution

Evolution is cleverer than you are. Orgel’s Second Rule

A little bit of tempting treat
That smells and tastes so glucose-sweet
Is what a cockroach loves to eat
And so it will, perhaps.
But human beings, as of late,
Present the bugs a different fate
By sweetening the poisoned bait
They’re using in their traps

Appetitive behavior means
There’s coding somewhere in the genes
That link sensilla (small machines
For chemical detection)
With action—bugs approach or flee
If foods are sweet or bitter, see?
Our mixing poison now is key:
A pressure for selection!

But insect populations vary;
Roaches may or may not carry
Genes that make them glucose-wary,
Acting on their brains
If, in our anti-cockroach war
We use these sweetened poisons more,
Such genes will be selected for
Creating different strains

And so, although the people’s goal
Was ultimately pest control
It seems that nature found a hole
And made its own solution
The roaches that we tried to kill
By poisoning their sweetened swill
Outsmarted us—and always will,
Cos such is evolution!

In Science, just out today (yes, I am just that good), a story on rapid evolution of behavioral aversion to glucose in cockroaches, as a response to a strong selection pressure of sweetened poison baits. Behaviorally, these roaches are now avoiding foods with glucose. Physiologically, their gustatory response neurons have changed–sugar-GRN and bitter-GRN respond differentially to glucose and to caffeine in wild-type cockroaches, but in roach population with a history of exposure to sweetened poison baits, glucose stimulates the bitter-GRN response.

Mind you, selection takes place at the level of behavior, so this may or may not be the only proximal mechanism behind the change in behavior. Any change that selectively gets roaches to avoid poisoned baits will be strongly selected for.

We’ve seen this before–our best efforts to eliminate a pest are seen by evolution as just another selection pressure among many. And in the long run, we see time and time again… evolution is cleverer than we are.

And isn’t it beautiful?

A Thousand Words: Pensive

Reading Taslima’s recent posts, here and here, I was taken aback, just a bit. I mean, I really don’t think we need to look to our closest relatives to see common ancestry. I took this picture a few years ago, and I can’t look at it without thinking he or she is my cousin. (Mind you, some of my actual cousins are creationists, so I feel more kinship with this one than them…)

pensive

Might be deep in thought… might not. Same can be said of me.

Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!

In honor of his birthday today (sorry, Abe Lincoln, I don’t have one for you):

On the newsstand at the station
There it was, a publication
With a bold prevarication
Where it asked “Was Darwin Wrong?”
Darwin stands among the giants
Of our modern view of science
So, in answer and defiance
I’m replying in this song:

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin, take a look around today—
You might recognize the path we took, cos you showed us the way.
We will celebrate your influence with unabashed delight;
Happy Birthday Charles Darwin, you were right!

Variation in the features
Of all sorts of nature’s creatures
Was a sign of God, for preachers,
But you thought you’d take a look
It’s descent and not creation
That explains the population
So we start the celebration
For the guy who wrote the book

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin, take a look around today—
You might recognize the path we took, cos you showed us the way.
We will celebrate your influence with unabashed delight;
Happy Birthday Charles Darwin, you were right!

From the South Pacific Islands
To the bonny Scottish Highlands,
In the oceans and the dry lands
We can see the evidence.
From diversity most splendid,
We infer that we descended;
It was you who comprehended
And your impact was immense!

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin, take a look around today—
You might recognize the path we took, cos you showed us the way.
We will celebrate your influence with unabashed delight;
Happy Birthday Charles Darwin, you were right!

Well, the theory you created
Has, for decades, been updated,
But it shouldn’t be unstated
That it all began with you
That’s the way with any theory
Though detractors may grow weary
As they try to make folks leery
But they can’t deny it’s true

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin, take a look around today—
You might recognize the path we took, cos you showed us the way.
We will celebrate your influence with unabashed delight;
Happy Birthday Charles Darwin, you were right!

20/20 Hindsight (or, The Basis Of Objective Morality)

Cos it’s coming up on that time of the semester. Another one for my students.

The non-religious viewpoint—that a moral sense evolves—
Raises up some thorny questions, while some others it resolves
The thing about selection that can give a fellow blindsight
Is that all success and failure is revealed to us in hindsight.
Predicting evolution is a right and awful mess,
Cos a change in the environment will influence success;
When selection pressures differ, they result in different features
In morphology, of course, and the behaviors seen in creatures
“Successful” might be bigger, might be smaller, might be smart
From a cuttlefish in hiding to a peacock’s walking art
From the flora in intestines to domesticated cow
Each of these has been successful; only hindsight tells us how.
A selectionist analysis applies to culture, too—
There’s variety apparent in the many things we do,
As we teach them to our children, replication of a sort
Differentially effective, when attempts may come up short.
When we ask the loaded questions, “What is moral? What is good?”
“Are there independent standards, what we shan’t and what we should?”
As the most successful culture, it should fill us with delight—
We will always look behind us, saying what we did was right
What we did was good and moral, and the gods looked down and smiled;
Now it’s thoroughly objective, and we teach to every child
All the Thou shall not’s we followed, every moral, every rule,
As the basis of our culture, in the church and in the school
In the battles over culture, had another party won
Then morality, objectively, is what that group has done.

The moral code of conduct that determines saints and sinners
Is the product of selection, in the history of the winners

The rest of the lesson, in prose, after the jump: [Read more…]

The Most Amazing Thing

If you take a look around while you’re out walking
Just to catalog the things you chance to see
From the beetle at your footstep to the pigeon overhead
To the bracket fungus high up in a tree
You will notice the abundances of nature
It’s astonishing, of course, because it’s true

And the most amazing thing about this earthworm

And the most amazing thing about this kitty

And the most amazing thing about this sea cucumber

And the most amazing thing about this virus

And the most amazing thing about this mushroom

And the most amazing thing about this octopus

And the most amazing thing about this fig tree

And the most amazing thing about this wallaby

And the most amazing thing about this daffodil

And the most amazing thing about this slime mold

And the most amazing thing about this yeast cell

And the most amazing thing about this humpback

And the most amazing thing about this baby

And the most amazing thing about this amoeba

And the most amazing thing about this every living thing

Is that all of it’s related… to you.
[Read more…]