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.

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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.

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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”).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“…much that was human and natural found no expression.”

Fall of Giants
I discovered Ken Follet only recently, historical fiction not normally being my cup of tea. Right now I’m reading Fall of Giants after enjoying The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. Follet has, I think, a bit of Stephen King’s ability to make you care what happens to his characters, and he plays the long game, with subplots sometimes taking taking generations to play out. Religion plays an important role in his writing, as it must given the setting. His characters include skeptics and true believers, who are inspired by their beliefs to do evil as often as good. Anyway, I thought the last part of this quote might resonate with the godless heathens that frequent this site:

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Look what came in the mail yesterday!

Biological Individuality

A project started five years ago has finally borne fruit. In May, 2012 I joined a group of philosophers, historians, and biologists in Philadelphia for the Cain ConferenceE pluribus unum: Bringing biological parts and wholes into historical and philosophical perspective.” The meeting was organized by Lynn Nyhart and Scott Lidgard, with the goal

…to pursue the question: How can historians, philosophers, and biologists help each other to understand part-whole relationships in biology, both today and in the past?

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Chance favors the minute animalcule: John Tyler Bonner on randomness


A colleague recently (well, not that recently; sorry, Art) lent me a copy of John Tyler Bonner’s latest bookRandomness in Evolution. Dr. Bonner is emeritus faculty at Princeton University, where he has been since 1947, shortly after World War II interrupted his Ph.D. studies. Among many other contributions, Bonner was a pioneer in the development of the social amoeba (or cellular slime mold) Dictyostelium discoideum as a model system for multicellular development and cell-cell signaling. A member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he has published over twenty books and mountains of peer-reviewed papers.

As much as David Kirk’s Volvox, Bonner’s books The Evolution of Complexity and First Signals: The Evolution of Multicellular Development influenced my decision to study Volvox in grad school. I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Bonner in 2009 when, as a graduate student, I invited him to give a departmental seminar at the University of Arizona. It really was a pleasure; this is someone who thinks deeply about big questions and has made important contributions to understanding many of the answers.

The central argument of the new book is that randomness plays a larger role, relative to natural selection, in the morphology of small organisms than that of large ones. Typically of Bonner’s work, the book is coherent, readable, and full of fascinating examples. Although the cellular slime molds are his primary study organism, Bonner has long had an interest in, and interesting things to say about, Volvox, so I was excited to read his most recent thoughts.

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