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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Quite remarkable

The Evolution of Individuality cover

That life is hierarchically organized, with species composed of populations, populations of individuals, individuals of cells, cells of organelles, organelles of genomes, genomes of chromosomes, and chromosomes of genes, is so obvious an observation that it is quite remarkable that we have no general explanation of why this is so. –Leo Buss, The Evolution of Individuality, p. 183

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Final thoughts on Cuba

They won’t be. I’m pretty sure about that. As long as credulous news sources continue to take seriously the absurd idea that Cuba attacked American diplomats with a magical sci-fi sound gun, I’m probably not going to be able to resist bitching about it. But right now I want to talk about what a massive failure this has been by scads of people who should have known better.

MSNBC screenshot

Headline from MSNBC 2019-07-23: “Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania released a new study on the brains of U.S. diplomats who suffered unexplainable health complications following the 2017 Cuba sonic attack. NBC’s Josh Lederman explains the circumstances and next steps to find the cause.”

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Still true

True in 1875, true today:

Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution as not being adequately supported by facts, seem to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all. Like the majority of men who are born to a given belief, they demand the most rigorous proof of any adverse belief, but assume that their own needs none. —Herbert Spencer

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Triscuit

When I visit my parents, we watch a lot of Food Network. It’s just about the only thing we can all agree on, and it’s also just about the only time I see television commercials. Last time I was up there (in June), this was in heavy rotation:

I believe Nabisco when they say Triscuits don’t contain any genetically modified ingredients. In fact, I know they’re telling the truth. The reason I know that is that Triscuits are made of wheat, and there is no commercially available GMO wheat. You couldn’t buy a GMO wheat cracker if you tried. [Read more…]

Embryogenesis in Gonium and Tetrabaena

Back when I was a cocky grad student, I wrote a paper that was, in some ways, critical of the work of one of the biggest names in my field. David Kirk, who passed away last year, was among the most important figures in establishing Volvox as a model system for development, genetics, and evolution, among other things. He had published a paper that I thought was unnecessarily progressivist, and I said so in terms that, in retrospect, could have been more diplomatic. In response, Dr. Kirk, whom I had never met, sent me a very thoughtful email thanking me for pointing out some of the problems and politely disagreeing on some other points. Its tone was kind and respectful when annoyed and argumentative would have probably been justified.

In that email, he offered a bet, the stakes of which were to be a beer, that one of the things I had suggested would turn out to be wrong. The issue had to do with inversion, a process that the (mostly) spheroidal algae in the family Volvocaceae undergo during development. I have written about inversion many times on Fierce Roller; in a nutshell, these algae start their lives inside-out, with their flagella on the inside, and invert to get the flagella on the outside, where they can be used for swimming. Their relatives in the genus Gonium also undergo a process of partial inversion, changing from cup-shaped (with the flagella on the concave side) to flat or slightly cup-shaped in the other direction. Dr. Kirk had interpreted Gonium‘s partial inversion as a probable intermediate step that led to the complete inversion characteristic of the Volvocaceae. My reconstructions suggested that incomplete inversion in Gonium had evolved separately from complete inversion in the Volvocaceae, and Dr. Kirk bet me that this would turn out to be wrong.

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I thought I’d buried the hatchet with Research Outreach

…but they dug it back up!

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!

The backstory here is that I wrote a post a couple of years ago that expressed some not very flattering opinions about a publication called Research Features. A while later, their Editorial Director emailed me that she was “interested and concerned” about what I had written and asked if we might talk on the phone. When I replied that I’d rather discuss it by email, she left the conversation and never came back. I later found out that their writers were only paid £50 for each article, and I wrote about that. This year, I learned that the same people had started a new publication, Research Outreach, that seemed to have cleaned up its act relative to Research Features, and I wrote about that. Their Operations Director responded with a couple of very nice comments, which I posted in their entirety.

It turns out that while I was making nice with Research Outreach, they were bolting the doors and tuning up to play “The Rains of Castamere.” [Read more…]

False narrative Inception

Inception, Legendary Pictures.

Inception, Legendary Pictures.

David Klinghoffer has responded to my previous post with a post of his own at Evolution News & Science Today. Right out of the gate, he mischaracterizes the dispute:

Georgia Tech biologist Matthew Herron is still chiding me for sharing synthetic organic chemist James Tour’s statements, a “false narrative,” that we — the public, the media, and yes, scientists too — are “clueless” about how life originated.

It was not Dr. Tour’s statements that I characterized as a false narrative; it was Klinghoffer’s. [Read more…]