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…]

“…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:

[Read more…]

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?

[Read more…]

Chance favors the minute animalcule: John Tyler Bonner on randomness

BonnerRandomnessCover

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.

[Read more…]

Volvox in Wired

Volvox photo by Jack Challoner

Volvox photo by Jack Challoner

Wired has a short blurb featuring some photos from Jack Challoner’s new book The Cell: A Visual Tour of the Building Block of Life, including the above Volvox picture. The caption is

Algae Colonies
Each green sphere is a colony of Volvox algae with more than 50,000 cells. Scientists study these glowing, freshwater organisms as models for how living creatures develop specialized cells and tissue. Strands of cytoplasm connect neighboring cells, allowing them to communicate, and slender flagella propel the colony through the water.

[Read more…]