Such is the history of it.

Mark Twain

Mark Twain by Unknown – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a08820. Public Domain, Link

Tipped off by Dan McShea and Carl Simpson, I went and checked out Mark Twain’s brilliant dismembering of Alfred Russel Wallace’s version of the fine-tuning hypothesis, “Was The World Made For Man?“. Wallace is popular among intelligent design advocates because, after independently conceiving of a theory of evolution by natural selection, he became enamored of some ideas that resonate with them, such as that the universe has purpose and that material causes can’t explain human intelligence.

In his 1903 book, Man’s Place in the Universe, Wallace argued that the purpose of Earth, and indeed the universe, was the evolution and continued existence of humanity:

All nature tells us the same strange, mysterious story, of the exuberance of life, of endless variety, of unimaginable quantity. All this life upon our earth has led up to and culminated in that of man. It has been, I believe, a common and not unpopular idea that during the whole process of the rise and growth and extinction of past forms, the earth has been preparing for the ultimate–Man. Much of the wealth and luxuriance of living things, the infinite variety of form and structure, the exquisite grace and beauty in bird and insect, in foliage and flower, may have been mere by-products of the grand mechanism we call nature–the one and only method of developing humanity.

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David Kirk obituary

David Kirk

Dr. Kirk delivering the final talk at the 2007 Volvox Symposium at Washington University, an event that celebrated his retirement and his many contributions to the study of Volvox. The symposium was attended by representatives from every active Volvox lab at the time. During the symposium, Dr. Hisayoshi Nozaki announced the discovery of a new species of Volvox, Volvox kirkiorum, that he named in honor of the Kirks.

Rüdiger Schmitt and Stephen Miller have published an ‘in memoriam’ on David Kirk in the latest Phycological Society of America newsletter.

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Beautiful irony

Uncommon Descent astrologyFrom Denyse O’Leary:

I mean, if you leave out the crackpots, the idea that the stars, which are much more significant in size than Earth, rule our destiny makes sense. It’s beautiful and it was just what court intellectual needed, centuries ago. It doesn’t happen to be true.

The idea that natural selection acting on random mutation could fill the world with exquisitely complex life forms makes sense to fashionable intellectuals today and it doesn’t happen to be true.

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Upcoming talks, and some system maintenance

Chlamydomonas colonies from the predation experiment.

Chlamydomonas colonies from the predation experiment.

I’ll be giving a couple of talks on experimental evolution of multicellularity in the next couple of weeks:

  1. University of Georgia Department of Cellular Biology, Tuesday, September 11, 11:00 a.m. in Biological Sciences 404A
  2. Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, Friday, September 20, time and place TBD

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Honorary authorship is fraud.

Authorship on peer-reviewed papers is a big deal in academia. If you’re a grad student looking for a postdoc, the very first thing your prospective advisor is going to want to know is what you’ve published (this is arguably true at every level, though funded grants become important, too). Customs vary among fields, but in mine (ecology and evolutionary biology), the first author is typically the person who carried out the experiment and wrote at least a first draft of the paper, and the last author is typically the head of the lab group, who is presumed to have played a role in planning the research, advising the first author along the way, and writing and revising the resulting paper. In between (if there are more than two authors) are people who have made some other contributions, which can cover a wide range of activities.

Sometimes, though, people who haven’t made any significant contribution at all are listed as authors. This happens for a variety of reasons, but the one I want to talk about today is so-called ‘honorary’ or ‘gift’ authorship. This is something I have long had a strong opinion about: in my mind, honorary authorship is unethical. It is an abuse of the system. It is academic misconduct. [Read more…]

Some people got sick in Cuba. Or did they?

Sound cannon

Image from wired.com.

The last time I wrote about the Cuban ‘sonic attack’ baloney, I said that a pair of peer-reviewed articles had convinced me

…that some American diplomats who served in Cuba have real neurological symptoms (Swanson et al. 2018). Furthermore, they have convinced me that these same diplomats appear to have real differences in brain structure from an age-matched, healthy control group (Verma et al. 2019).

I may have spoken too soon: Sergio Della Sala and Roberto Cubelli, writing in Cortex, dispute the evidence that American embassy personnel in Cuba suffer from neurological impairment:

The [Swanson et al.] JAMA article represents a case of poor neuropsychology; clinically inappropriate and methodologically improper…

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The rock, the clock, and organismal complexity

Honeybees, photo by Will Ratcliff

Recently reproduced (swarmed) honeybees.
Photo by Will Ratcliff

Scientific articles can be dry, technical, and, yes, boring. They aren’t always, though. Now and then you come across a gem, as I did this morning while searching for some background for a manuscript I’m working on. In 2007, Joan Strassmann and David Queller wrote, in a section titled “The rock, the clock, and organismal complexity,”

Darwin built his theory of descent with modifications from many quarters. He took uniformitarianism from the geologist Charles Lyell, the struggle for existence from the economist Thomas Malthus, and homology from a number of continental biologists. Perhaps most surprising is his debt to a theologian, William Paley. At university, Darwin had Paley’s Natural Theology almost by heart. Paley pointed to the complexity of organisms and claimed that such complexity required a supernatural intelligence. Darwin’s chief achievement was to provide a scientific explanation for adaptive complexity.

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Volvox 2019 meeting report

Volvox 2019 logo

Dominique Morneau has posted a report on the Fifth International Volvox Conference over at nature.com:

The Volvocales are an order of flagellated green algae, varying in size from one cell (Chlamydomonas) to >500 cells (Volvox), representing an interesting model for studying the evolution of multicellularity and cell differentiation.

The Volvox meeting takes place every two years, each year growing larger and larger. This year’s attendees – 67 altogether – came from Japan, Thailand, the US, the UK, and Canada, and ranged in career stage from high school students to established researchers.

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Tautologies

The argument that natural selection is a tautology and therefore lacks explanatory power is one of the silliest tropes that creationists have used to impugn evolution. Here’s a decent explanation of why:

Natural selection is in one sense a tautology (i.e., Who are the fittest? Those who survive/leave the most offspring. Who survive/leave the most offspring? The fittest.). But a lot of this is semantic word-play, and depends on how the matter is defined, and for what purpose the definition is raised. There are many areas of life in which circularity and truth go hand in hand (e.g. What is electric charge? That quality of matter on which an electric field acts. What is an electric field? A region in space that exerts a force on electric charge. But no one would deny that the theory of electricity is valid and can’t explain how motors work.)—it is only that circularity cannot be used as independent proof of something. To harp on the issue of tautology can become misleading, if the impression is given that something tautological therefore doesn’t happen. Of course the environment can ‘select’, just as human breeders select.

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