Ernst Mayr on the importance of definitions

The Growth of Biological Thought

Image from Goodreads.

One of my pet topics is the concept of biological individuality, which I’ve written about quite a lot here. One question that comes up often, in fact what I initially asked Dr. Pepper when he used to carry on about it, is why does it matter?

So much ink has been spilled trying to define what an individual is, in the peer-reviewed literature of philosophy and of biology, as well as several books dedicated to the topic. What is the point of all this, to justify so much intellectual effort and so many dead trees?

[Read more…]

A helpful translation

I’m never sure whether I should be amused or horrified to see intelligent design’s PR firm, the Discovery Institute, trying to pose as a scientific organization. Right now I’m tending decidedly towards amusement, as their inept aping of the scientific process only serves to reveal how fundamentally they misunderstand it.

As always, I’m here to help.

Recent posts from members of the Discovery Institute show that their authors have learned to imitate the language of science without actually understanding it. I’m going to do my best to translate a few things. For example, when David Klinghoffer (who is, in a sense, a ghost) says,

I’m currently seeking to place an awesome manuscript by a scientist at an Ivy League university with the guts to give his reasons for rejecting Darwinism. The problem is that, as yet, nobody has the guts to publish it.

what I think he means is

our manuscript has so far failed to pass peer review.

[Read more…]

Manufacturing controversy

Darwin Devolves cover

If you read the same blogs I do, you’re no doubt aware that Nathan Lents, Joshua Swamidass, and Richard Lenski published a not-very-flattering review of Michael Behe’s new book, Darwin Devolves, in Science. As you would expect, various members of the Discovery Institute, including Dr. Behe himself, have responded to the review. I haven’t read Darwin Devolves yet, so I there’s a lot on both sides of the argument that I won’t try to evaluate.

What I am going to talk about is the attempts, mostly by David Klinghoffer, to imply that there is something underhanded about the review itself. Klinghoffer takes issue not just with the content of the review, but with its authorship and timing:

Three? Why Not One?

Why was it [the Lents et al. review] written and published in this way? It’s odd to review a book that hasn’t been publicly released yet.

[Read more…]

A is for Algae

I got my copy of Jillian Freese’s A is for Algae earlier this week. Freese, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Rhode Island, says the book is “Part birthday gift. Part #scicomm. Part stress relief.” It’s full of watercolor paintings of algae, mostly seaweeds but with some phytoplankton as well. Each species (one for each letter of the alphabet) is presented with its scientific name, usually a common name, habitat and biogeographic information, and some interesting factoids.A is for Algae

Warning: spoilers below the fold.

[Read more…]

Elephants and oak trees

The Major Transitions in Evolution cover

The increase [in complexity] has been neither universal nor inevitable. Bacteria, for example, are probably no more complex today than their ancestors 2000 million years ago. The most that we can say is that some lineages have become more complex in the course of time. Complexity is hard to define or to measure, but there is surely some sense in which elephants and oak trees are more complex than bacteria, and bacteria than the first replicating molecules.

[Read more…]

Fuzzy individuals

Nature Alive

I have an interest with the philosophy of biology, but I’m a dilettante. My background is in evolutionary biology; I haven’t had a philosophy class since I was an undergrad at UCF. Nevertheless, if you study the so-called Major Transitions, you’re inevitably going to end up reading some philosophy. Topics such as multilevel selection, emergence, and the nature of biological individuality come up over and over again in this field, and philosophers of biology have made important contributions in all of them.

Among these, I find discussions of the nature of biological individuality fascinating, and I’ve written about it often here. Volvox and its relatives often come up in these discussions, and they have for a long time. A new edited volume, Nature Alive, continues this trend in a chapter by Lukasz Lamza (“Cells, organisms, colonies, communities–the fuzziness of individuality in modern biology”).

[Read more…]

The Essential Tension

The Essential Tension

When I ran across The Essential Tension by Sonya Bahar, my first thought was that it sounded very much like something my PhD advisor could have written:

‘The Essential Tension’ explores how agents that naturally compete come to act together as a group. The author argues that the controversial concept of multilevel selection is essential to biological evolution, a proposition set to stimulate new debate.

The subtitle is Competition, Cooperation and Multilevel Selection in Evolution, which is more than vaguely reminiscent of the ‘cooperation and conflict’ framework Rick Michod has built over the last twenty years.

[Read more…]

Chlamydomonas monograph

Chlamydomonas monograph cover

There’s a new Microbiology Monograph on ChlamydomonasChlamydomonas: Molecular Genetics and Physiology, edited by Michael Hippler. It’s actually cheaper to buy it directly from the publisher, but still $149 for an e-book.

This Microbiology Monographs volume covers the current and most recent advances in genomics and genetics, biochemistry, physiology, and molecular biology of C. reinhardtii. Expert international scientists contribute with reviews on the genome, post-genomic techniques, the genetic toolbox development as well as new insights in regulation of photosynthesis and acclimation strategies towards environmental stresses and other structural and genetic aspects, including applicable aspects in biotechnology and biomedicine.

[Read more…]

A few more things called “Volvox

I like to document uses of the name “Volvox” that don’t refer to the green algal genus, for example Volvox the shipVolvox the paintDJ Volvox, another DJ VolvoxVolvox the art galleryVolvox the Turkish metal band, and another Volvox band (“one of the most extraordinary bands ever to emerge from Melbourne, or in fact anywhere else”).

Postdoc Katrin Schmidt recently brought a few more to my attention; I’m really not sure if they have anything at all to do with proper Volvox:

The Volvox

Volvox the book.

[Read more…]

Cells, colonies, and clones: individuality in the volvocine algae

Biological Individuality

As I mentioned previously, I have a chapter in the newly published book Biological Individuality, Integrating Scientific, Philosophical, and Historical Perspectives. The chapter was actually written nearly five years ago, but things move more slowly in the philosophy world than that of biology. Finally, though, both the print and electronic versions are now available; here is the electronic version of my chapter. The book currently has no reviews on Amazon, so if you want to give it a read, yours could be the first. If you’re interested in current and historical views on individuality, there is a lot of good stuff in here, including contributions by Scott Lidgard & Lynn Nyhart, Beckett Sterner, Andrew Reynolds, Snait Gissis, Olivier Rieppel, Michael Osborne, Hannah Landecker, Ingo Brigandt, James Elwick, Scott Gilbert, and Alan Love & Ingo Brigandt.

[Read more…]