Who’s “dorky”?

Take a group of seventh graders and ask them to draw pictures of and describe scientists: as you might expect, you get a bunch of pictures of lab coats and adjectives like “dorky”. Take those same seventh graders and introduce them to some real scientists, and the descriptions change.

OK, if I had been one of the scientists they might still use the word “dorky”, but in general, it’s true that meeting scientists will almost always change people’s perceptions of them.

Sir Oolius makes a good point: some of these cartoons of scientists suggest we ought to be rioting. I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of calling for a jihad against 7th graders, though.

Eldredge on Darwin

Niles Eldredge has a fine essay online on what it means to be a Darwinist (not the term as caricatured by creationists, but merely as someone who respects the work of Darwin while acknowledging the vast increase in understanding evolution since his time). It’s also useful for explaining how creationists distort the concept of punctuated equilibrium.

The creationists of the day got into the act as well. In a clear demonstration of how thoroughly political the creationist movement has always been in the United States, Ronald Reagan told reporters, after addressing a throng of Christian ministers during the 1980 presidential campaign, that evolution “is a theory, a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science and is not yet believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was believed.” The creationist who managed to get to Reagan’s handlers later bragged to me that those scientists in question were none other than Gould and me. The syllogism ran something like this: (1) Darwin said that evolution is slow, steady, and gradual; (2) some scientists say that evolution consists of rapid bursts of change interrupting vastly longer periods of evolutionary stagnation; ergo, (3) some scientists don’t follow Darwin, meaning (4) some scientists oppose evolution. Then, as now, at least in the public domain, “Darwin” is code for “evolution.” The two are virtual synonyms.

Ain’t that the truth. Darwin is not synonymous with evolution, however, which is why I reject the term “Darwinist” myself. But even so, I’m with Eldredge on this matter: Darwin was an excellent writer and scientist, and his work was the foundation for modern biology.

But I never thought the fact that Darwin—from where I stand as a paleontologist—got some of his story wrong somehow made me an anti-Darwinian. For I have admired the man ever since I took my paperback copy of the sixth edition of On the Origin of Species to read while waiting for Louis Leakey to show up and give a lecture on human evolution on the Columbia campus. I had arrived early to get a good seat, and Louis was late—so I got my first real chance to sample Darwin’s prose. I was fearful of the complexity of the great man’s mind, and of the alien nature of his Victorian prose. But I needn’t have worried, for Darwin proved accessible to the readers of his day—even lay readers—and he remains so today.

My Friday with Darwin

OK, people, this is too cruel. I was gone all day yesterday, traveling to the Twin Cities for this Darwin Day event, and the site gets 37,000 visits. Are you all trying to tell me it’s better when I’m not around to clutter it up? If I take off for a week will traffic climb to Daily Kos-like proportions? (There was a link from fark that might actually explain the sudden surge.)

Anyway, I’ll give a quick summary of what I was up to yesterday.

I started with a 3 hour drive to Minneapolis, which was very exciting. High winds, blowing snow, near whiteout conditions. The weather was bad enough that they canceled public schools in the area.

When I got there, we set up in the Bell Museum auditorium. We had about 50 or 60 people show up.

The first talk was by Mark Borrello, a historian of biology, who gave a very good overview of Darwin’s life.

I’ve put a copy of my talk online (pardon the bloated format: blame Microsoft). Since I don’t use much text in my powerpoint presentations, I’ll give a rough overview of the content here. In my introduction, I pointed out a creationist accusation—that we’re “Darwinian fundamentalists” or “Darwinists”—and a claim—that there is no evidence for evolution. The point of my talk was to show that, much as we respect and admire Darwin as a founding father of an important scientific discipline, his theory has been expanded upon in ways he couldn’t even imagine, and that the addition of new information is an ongoing pursuit. There are major themes in evolutionary research—genetics, molecular biology, bioinformatics, genomics, evo-devo—that simply weren’t even on the horizon in Darwin’s day.

I gave a lightning quick, superficial overview of examples of new developments in evolution.

  • New fossils, new transitional forms in whale and human evolution.
  • Fry et al.‘s work on venom evolution as an example of integrating molecular systematics, analysis of gene expression, and morphology to produce 3 overlapping lines of evidence that support an evolutionary story.
  • Suzuki and Nijhout’s work on laboratory selection in Manduca as an example of observed evolution.
  • Okabe and Graham’s study of parathyroid origins: combining the use of molecular markers and comparative embryology to demonstrate homology of an organ system.
  • Resolving core differences in the body plans of arthropods and chordates, and showing common descent by the shared patterns of Hox gene expression.

My conclusion was to show a pretty squid picture as an example of exotic beauty in nature, and explain that evolution is currently the only explanation that simultaneously explains the diversity and unity of life, and that it is the only explanation we have that is soundly based on the evidence.

The session closed with very short overviews of current research by three biologists in the ecology and evolutionary biology department: R. Ford Denison, Peter Tiffin, and Cynthia Weinig. They were very good, but I think the format was a bit much—after over two hours of talks, it was probably a mistake to put the most technically challenging talks at the very end, when the audience was exhausted.

Finally, I had a short planning discussion about Cafe Scientifique with the Bell Museum organizer, got in my car, cussed out rush hour traffic, got to western Minnesota to discover the roads were still invisible with blowing snow, and got home after a few exciting slides and twirls on powder-covered streets.

Today I’m planning to take it easy, read a bit, and attend the Prairie Home Companion show which will be broadcast live from UMM. You can find out more on the Prairie Home page, listen to it on your local station, and if you’ve got the real audio player, you can listen to it live between 5 and 7 pm Central time today. I doubt very much that he’ll say anything about evolutionary biology or science, but he may poke fun at my university, which is always entertaining.

Where will I be today?

This afternoon, I’ll be at the Bell Museum at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus, celebrating the birth of Charles Darwin. Everyone is welcome, so come on down!

1:00P – Lecture by historian of biology Professor Mark Borrello, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, on the history of Darwin and evolutionary theory.

2:00P – Lecture by biologist and blogger Professor P.Z. Myers, University of Minnesota—Morris, on evidence for evolution.

3:00P – Panel discussion of University of Minnesota evolutionary biologists on their cutting-edge research at the U of M titled “My Life’s Work in Three Minutes”. To be followed by a cake reception.

Charles Darwin achieved fame and infamy for his theory of evolution by natural selection, now the foundation underlying all biological sciences. Darwin Day is the anniversary of his birthday, whose exact date is February 12, 1809. The date is celebrated internationally.

For more information, contact:
Mike Jones
Publishing and Editing Committee Manager
Campus Atheists and Secular Humanists

Bell Museum of Natural History (Directions|Google Map)

Mmmmm-mmm. Cake. You can’t possibly miss this.

Deutsch speaks!

…and makes a total ass of himself.

In the interview, Mr. Deutsch said that Dr. Hansen had partisan ties “all the way up to the top of the Democratic Party,” and that he was “using those ties and using his media connections to push an agenda, a worst-case-scenario agenda of global warming.” He said that anyone who disagrees with Dr. Hansen “is labeled a censor and is demonized and vilified in the media — and the media of course is a willing accomplice here.”

And how does he know Hansen was a mere partisan flack peddling bad science? Because Deutsch almost has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Texas A&M.

Guanlong wucaii

a, b, Cranial reconstruction in left lateral (a; shaded area indicates the unpreserved portion) and dorsal (b) views. adc, anterodorsal concavity; al, anterior lamina; an, angular; aof, antorbital fenestra; d, dentary; dg, dentary groove; emf, external mandibular fenestra; en, external naris; if, infratemporal fenestra; isf, foramen on ischium; j, jugal; jp, pneumatic jugal foramen; l, lacrimal; m, maxilla; mc I–IV, metacarpals I–IV; mo, maxillary opening; mt I–V, metatarsals I–V; mvc, median vertical crest; nc, nasal crest; obf, obturator foramen; orb, orbit; pf, prefrontal; pfe, pneumatic fenestra; pl, posterior lamina; pm, premaxilla; po, postorbital; pr, pneumatic recess; qj, quadratojugal; ri, right ilium; ris, right ischium; rp, right pubis; sa, surangular; sac, sacrum; sc, sagittal crest; sec, semilunate carpal; sq, squamosal; tp, tubercle on pubis; tr, transverse ridge. Scale bar: 5 cm

Well, I was going to put together more about this beautiful new basal tyrannosauroid from the Jurassic of China, Guanlong wucaii, but Carl Zimmer beat me to it. I’ll just show you that lovely crested skull, and below the fold, a picture of the fossil in situ, and let Carl do the hard work of explaining it all.

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Evolution of a polyphenism

Here’s some very cool news: scientists have directly observed the evolution of a complex, polygenic, polyphenic trait by genetic assimilation and accommodation in the laboratory. This is important, because it is simultaneously yet another demonstration of the fact of evolution, and an exploration of mechanisms of evolution—showing that evolution is more sophisticated than changes in the coding sequences of individual genes spreading through a population, but is also a consequence of the accumulation of masked variation, synergistic interactions between different alleles and the environment, and perhaps most importantly, changes in gene regulation.

Unfortunately, it’s also an example of some extremely rarefied terminology that is very precisely used in genetic and developmental labs everywhere, but probably makes most people’s eyes glaze over and wonder what the fuss is all about. I’ll try to give a simple introduction to those peculiar words, and explain why the evolution of a polyphenic pigment pattern in a caterpillar is a fascinating and significant result.

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