Biochemical Soul Musings on Nature, Science, Evolution, Biology, and Education

6Feb/09Off

Morphed and Meeting Evolutionary “Needs”

I'm jealous!

Christie over at Observations of a Nerd (one of my favorite science blogs), somehow got noticed by the National Geographic Channel and received her own early DVD copy of their upcoming Darwin Specials for review. I highly recommend everyone read her sneak-peek at the upcoming "Morphed" series, which explores the evolution from ancestor beasts to whales, birds, and bears (also check out Christie's coverage on the new whale findings).

I'm guessing that many other science bloggers received the same email that I did, but I at least recieved a message from NGC's Digital Consultant, Minjae Ormes, with a "Party Invitation" to join them for Morphed, Darwin's Secret Notebooks, and Monster Fish of the Congo. Considering that I am greatly anticipating my chance to watch Morphed this Sunday, I am more than happy to advertise the programs below.

It sounds like a wonderful program with advanced CGI bringing the course of evolution to visual life, and with a good amount of intriguing science to back it all up.

That being said, Christie brought up one criticism that hits home for me, having taught evolution to undergraduate non-scientists. To quote Christie,

"They kept saying one thing that just got under my skin - they phrased adaptations as "solving" evolutionary problems. Species need to swim better? It must evolve a more muscular tail and streamlined body?! As convenient as that would be, that's not how evolution works. It doesn't see a problem and tackle it head on. OK, so it might seem nit-picky, but hey, that's what I'm here for."

Actually, I don't think this is nit-picky at all. In fact, I view it as a cardinal sin in teaching evolution. It gets right down to the fundamental mechanism of evolution: namely that there is NO "intended" direction in natural selection - no plan - no design - no dependence on needs.  It's very very simple - those individuals that happen to be better at doing some particular thing - a thing that makes them better eaters, better survivors, better reproducers - are more likely to pass on their traits. Thus over time, the population changes.  That's it, really.

However, I'm torn over how much to fault the NGC for using this type of literary or metaphorical storytelling device. Its human nature to see effects caused by needs. And based on my own experience in the classroom, it seems to be one of the most difficult evolutionary concepts for students to learn, which I have found a little surprising.

Here's an example: In a class on Topics in General Biology for freshman non-majors, I have given quiz questions such as these two (setup with a chart showing various characteristics of different lizard species):

According to the theory of natural selection, where did the variations in body size in the three species of lizards come from?

  1. The lizards needed to change in order to survive, so beneficial new traits developed.
  2. The lizards wanted to become different in size, so beneficial new traits gradually appeared in the population.
  3. The island environment caused genetic changes in the lizards.
  4. Random genetic changes and sexual recombination both created new variations that “worked better.”

What could cause one species of lizard to change into three species of lizards over time?

  1. Groups of lizards encountered different island environments so the lizards needed to become new species with different traits in order to survive.
  2. Groups of lizards must have been geographically isolated from other groups and random genetic changes must have accumulated in these lizard populations over time.
  3. There may be minor variations, but the lizards are essentially alike and all are members of a single species.
  4. In order to survive, different groups of lizards needed to adapt to the different islands, and so all organisms in each group gradually evolved to become a new lizard species.

A disarmingly large number of students answered 1. or 2. and 1. or 4., respectively (the correct answers are 4. and 2.). Okay, no big deal as it was a quiz based on the reading - perhaps they didn't read carefully enough (or at all).  So I used the quiz results to launch into a lecture on exactly why "needs" are completely irrelevant in evolution, hitting the concept quite hard.  We talked about specific examples in the animal kingdom, and it seemed like everyone understood the randomness of the underlying variability and the non-random yet unplanned outcome of natural selection.

But what happened when I gave them almost exact replicas of the question on the next exam? A good number of the students still gave answers indicating adaptation based on environmental needs!

Was this due to a lack of studying? A lack of interest in the subject? A failure on my part to make the concept reach their deeper cognition? Or was it due to some inherent difficulty in seeing things that look designed as arising without intended direction?

I must note that most of my better performing students found the question extraordinarily easy and I saw much eye rolling as we went through the exam afterward. So is there some fundamental dichotomy in the ability to understand this concept - can some people just not "get it" without immense effort?

I don't know the answer to this.  I think it may be just as likely that the students who didn't get it had just been partying too much or studying not enough.

So to what degree do we chastise the NGC for using misleading language to describe evolution as "solving problems"?  I'm not sure.

Nevertheless, I want to make it absolutely clear that "Morphed" sounds like an otherwise amazing program and I am incredibly excited to watch it this Sunday. As an aside, I highly recommend the PBS "evolution" series, particularly "Great Transformations" which also covers whale evolution beautifully.

Now I give you the National Geographic Channel advertisement:

Darwin Specials

Darwin Specials

30Jan/09Off

Carnival of Evolution #8 (Part One)

Shiny New Button!

Shiny New Button!

UPDATE* if you do not see your post mentioned, see note at the bottom of the post.

IT...HAS...ARRIVED!

The long awaited, much delayed eighth edition of the Carnival of Evolution is here.

I won't go into the excuses, other than to say that one of them was the death of my grandfather - a man whose love of nature inspired my own long journey into biology.

However, what better timing to resurrect a blog carnival devoted to evolution than now, a mere 12 days from Charles Darwin's 200th birthday in the year of the 150th anniversary of the publishing of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

The Beagle Project

The Beagle Project

And on this fitting occasion, the first question you should be asking yourself, as first posed by Karen James of The Beagle Project, is "what am I doing on Darwin Day?"

The second question you should ask is "am I signed up for the Blog for Darwin campaign on February 12th-15th, and if not, why not?"

Before we get into the wonderful evolutionary linkage, you should all first refresh your memories on the origins of the theory of natural selection by doing what I am doing: re-reading "Origin." Go ahead...I'll wait.

While we're waiting for those who just left to dig up their old tattered copies or purchase new ones, the rest of you might do just as well by visiting "Blogging the Origin" by John Whitfield, in which he gives an incredibly entertaining rundown of each chapter in the seminal book.

We all on the same page now? Good.

What? We're NOT all on the same page? Oh that's right, as the fellows at Astroguyz.com reminds us in a new review of that atrocious diatribe against evolutionary theory, Expelled, some people are still on the wrong book. My favorite caption from said post: "Are you there, Darwin? (Its me, Ben.)"

In fact, as Andrew at The Evolving Mind points out, there's a whole AOL network full of these folks. Keep trying people, you'll find the true nature of reality eventually, right? Right??

Or perhaps they will find a truth that is not ours. A real truth in which a giant cuttlefish lies behind the mysteries of life, surrounding them with slimy tentacular truthpendages. Though I doubt anyone but the Digital Cuttlefish could ever find such truth.

No Intelligence Allowed

No Intelligence Allowed

Ah well, at least we still have groups such as the folks over at Portland State affirming the last 150 years of truth for us, via the ALWAYS entertaining Peter Buckland over at Forms Most Beautiful. As an aside, I love Peter's blog name, for it comes from one of the most wonderful quotes from our illustrious 19th century hero. In fact, it is the concluding sentence of the entire Origin of Species:

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”

So why should we care that some have not found that unifying theme of all life on the planet, present and past? Why does evolution even matter?

Well, for one, as an excellent biology teacher over at FYI: Science! reminds us (in the first of a multi-part series on why evolution matters), evolution is the reason you should all stop buying all those antibacterial soaps and stop taking antibiotics for a viral infection. She also lets us not forget that without the wonders of evolution, we would never have survived the nineties without our favorite paleontologist, Ross, from Friends.

Observations of a Nerds Sci-Fi Parasites

Observations of a Nerd's "Sci-Fi Parasites"

Without evolution, could we really expect to have things such as a parasite that causes the loss of a fish's tongue, promptly replacing said tongue with itself? This wondrous science-fiction parasite (only one example in a series of such beautiful monstrosities at Observations of a Nerd) makes Douglas Adams' Babel Fish seem downright plausible.

Without a thorough understanding of evolution, one might be tempted to rationalize gender inequalities in human society using only partially understood naturalistic worldviews. Luckily, evolution has produced a perfect antidote to this way of thinking in the form of the masterful writer, Greg Laden of Greg Laden's Blog.

There is also personal power to be gained in understanding nature and its evolutionary history. To quote Asmoday of The Asmoday Experiment in an hilarious and entertaining post on our primate nature

You can become incredibly powerful by watching monkies.

Yes, I am dead serious here.

Austroraptor cabazai

Austroraptor cabazai

Ahh, but lest I give our non-biologist readers the wrong impression, I must note that not a day passes in which some new startling, fascinating, bewildering, strange, or subtle new piece of our planet's evolutionary history does not reveal itself to empirical eyes. And in this month's edition we have a plethora of newly published studies unraveled for us by none other than GrrlScientist at Living the Scientific Life. From the convergent evolution of the Hawai'ian Honeyeaters, the evolution of yawning as a thermoregulatory mechanism, and the discovery of a new Argentinian carnivorous dinosaur to the origins of modern birds, GrrlScientist lays the glory of the data out for us all to see, and most importantly, understand.

Taking a deeper view and delving into the molecular origins of the origins themselves, Hoxful Monsters brings us an excellent review of the importance of the ParaHox genes, paralogous to the familiar Hox cluster. In a related post, he brings us details of a recent study that places the Hox-lacking ctenophores, the beautiful creatures of the sea, as the most primitive of animal groups.

Yet these findings are all mere glimpses into the wonders of the fruits of natural selection.

What will we uncover next?

Find out in one month as the Carnival of Evolution #9 makes its appearance at Moneduloides. Use this handy form for submissions. We are seeking new hosts, so please volunteer if you have the will.

Please note, after discussion with several other bloggers at ScienceOnline09, including the Deep Sea News writer and hilarious musician Kevin Zelnio, the Carnival of Evolution will now be published on a monthly basis instead of biweekly. This is to both increase the quality of the carnival and to increase the number of entries in each edition. The conference was reinvigorating to say the least and I am committed to making sure this Carnival remains successful.

*UPDATE* 1/30/09 - After I published this, I found that blogcarnival.com had backlogged a whole other set of submissions (quite alot actually) for edition #9 (the one after this). If your post is one of these I am SO sorry. They were not included because I did not know they existed! I will set up another edition devoted to this full set of links ASAP. This is actually pretty exciting because it means we have ALOT more submissions than I thought!  Woo hoo!

*UPDATE* 2/3/09 - PART TWO of this edition is now posted here: Carnival of Evolution #8 (Part Two).

18Dec/08Off

Carnival of Evolution #6 and #7

awww....

awww....

As some of you might have noticed, this site has been pretty inactive as of late.  Blame that on the combination of a full-time research post-doc and a college teaching gig on top of it.

Well, now the stack of final exams are graded and it's time once again for you to indulge your selective pressure pleasure in the next Carnival of Evolution. The current biweekly installment, CoE#7, is hosted by Peter Buckland over at Forms Most Beautiful (by far one of my favorite science blogs - partially because he has an amazingly witty way with words and partially because his blog is sprinkled with posts on Heavy Metal).

I was also derelict in posting a link to Carnival of Evolution #6, hosted by Christie Lynn over at Observations of a Nerd.  If you haven't read her blog yet, you must check it out.  She's both hilarious and talented, with keen insight on all things nerdy.

Odontochelys semitestacea

Odontochelys semitestacea

The next installment in two weeks will be hosted by me, Irradiatus, here at biochemicalsoul on January 1st. So get your brains and fingers writing about what you enjoy and let the joys and sorrows of another semester melt away. Submit your posts here.

Also, please consider hosting an upcoming edition. If you have already done so before, you can most certainly host again. Quite a few people have begun reading this Blog Carnival, and here's hoping that the exposure will only grow. Just email me at irradiatus [at] biochemicalsoul [dot] com if you'd like to host. We have had quite an impressive list of article contributors (see the side bar to the right), so perhaps it's time that you contributors hosted as well.