Thursday, April 26, 2007

Kate's New and Hot (Week 5)

A new twist to the creationism vs. evolution debate...

Hey...I know it seems obscenely early to be posting my new and hot for next week, but I just got the new @Stanford newsletter, and I wanted to post this before anyone else snatched it up.

Anyways, there is an article on Stanford's news page that was published April 11th, but was prompted by a lecture that was given on the 4th (at 7pm on the day of our first class - did we talk about this? I can't remember) by Stanford President Emeritus Donald Kennedy. Kennedy has served as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and was a member of Stanford's biological sciences faculty for 20 years before becoming president of the university in 1980. The full article can be found here.

The gist of his talk was this: high school students that learn creationism instead of evolution do not develop the necessary critical thinking skills needed to succeed in college. To watch a clip of the talk, click here. Kennedy argues that when students learn creationism, they don't learn about scientific processes and how to question them. He says "What the creationist alternative does to students is to intercept and deaden curiosity...If relationships or correlations can be simply allocated to the cleverness of a designer, there's very little incentive to think up an experiment or undertake an analysis." By passively learning creationism, students do not get the opportunity to apply the scientific method and analyze empirical data in order to draw conclusions. He argues that the teaching of creationism discourages original and independent thinking, by crediting everything to a higher power.

I think this is a really interesting argument, and I think I agree with it in the realm of science. However, I'm not sure that you can say that all students who are taught creationism are lacking the critical thinking skills needed to succeed in higher education. While I don't agree with teaching creationism alone (or at all really, but that's me) in secondary school, I think students can develop critical thinking skills in other ways and places. It's definitely a valid point that deserves further thought though.


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Chad's New and Hot for Week 4

The article that I located for this week is related to the one that I found two weeks ago on the spread of creationism throughout other countries. This article dealt not only with Muslim nations, but with countries in Africa and Europe as well. For example, it mentioned a battle currently being fought in Kenya over the display of a prehistoric human skeleton. The display of this piece is being fought vehemently by religious figureheads within Kenya, such as Bishop Boniface Adoyo, who has “denounced the proposed exhibit, asserting that: “I did not evolve from Turkana Boy or anything like it.”” In Russia as well, the Orthodox Church recently supported a family in its bid to sue education authorities for teaching only about evolution as an origin of life. The article continued on to discuss the direct influence that American proponents of intelligent design are trying to have in other countries.

“Whatever the defeats they have suffered on home ground, American foes of Darwin seem to be gaining influence elsewhere. In February several luminaries of the anti-evolution movement in the United States went to Istanbul for a grand conference where Darwin's ideas were roundly denounced. The organiser of the gathering was a Turkish Muslim author and columnist, Mustafa Akyol, who forged strong American connections during a fellowship at the Discovery Institute.”

The entire text of the article (it’s a long one) can be read here.

Anne's Biography Book Review

I don't have an Amazon account, so once again, I have to post my book review here instead.

"Darwin and The Mysterious Mr. X : New Light on Evolutionists" By Loren Eisely

I would give this biography three out of five stars. Eisely devides his work into three distinct parts. The first part enititled "Dancers in the Ring" makes up the majority of the book, and is by far the most enjoyable, interesting and well written section of the enitre book. Eiseley discusses the intertwined lives of Darwin, Wallace, Lyell and Blyth. Eiseley uses rich and beautiful pros to present a vivid picture of the time period and ultimately present the idea that Darwin, although a famous name does not deserve all the credit for his theory. At the same time though, Eiseley respects the ingenuity of Darwin. At one point Eiseley makes the point that Darwin is afterall, a human too. Expanding on this idea, Eiseley carefully offers evidence for the fact that Darwin may not have cited those who influenced him in regards to his actual theory. Compelling evidence and connections between Edward Blyth's papers and those of Darwin make for an intriguing, although controversial arguement.

The next section is simply a compillation of documentary evidence taken from primary sources. Written by Blyth, the text reads like a text book and is filled with lists of obscure species and terms. I would recommend skipping this section and picking the novel up again for section three. The next section describes the life of Edward Blyth, and it is interesting in light of the many connections between the two men. The final section deals with the treatment of man in all of the evolutionary discussion during Darwin's time. Eiseley focuses on Darwin, but also on the historical threads of the time that influenced him in his writing of "The Descent of Man". He describes the discovery of the Neanderthal skull and the debates that insued. He also describes the religious views that influenced the many ideas of the time. Overall, "Darwin and The Mysterious Mr. X" is an intriguing read and I would recommend it to anybody interested in Darwin or the history of science at the time.

Anne's New and Hot (Week 4)

"How the Worm Turns" by Amy Stuart

When I was reading the op-ed section of the New York Times on Earth day, the name "Darwin" caught my eye at the end of one of the articles. As it turns out it mainly has to do with the re-surfacing of a species of worm that naturalists had declared extinct. In light of earth day this article offers an optimistic view. The presesnce of earth worms provides initalial indications of the health of an environment. According to the article: "Earthworms are bellwether creatures; when they disappear, it probably means that vital habitat has been lost, too. That’s why I’m so encouraged by the recent rediscovery of earthworms that had been classified as extinct" The article also describes the many new species of creatures that are discovered each year. A memorable quote is: "Discovering new species? No problem. Just stroll into a jungle and get one." Apparently last year scientists discovered eighty new species of earth worms. I had never realized the magnitude of undiscovered species, but the article clearly shows that naturalists are as important as ever...even those focusing on earth worms. Near the end, the metnion of Darwin that I had originally caught my eye surprised me even more: 'it may just be further proof of Darwin’s assertion that earthworms possess some intelligence." I'm not sure how accurate this statement is, but I want to see if he really thought this. Despite this odd refrerence, I never really thought about earth worms very much before, and this article is actually quite current and entertaining. You can find it here:

Bob - Let there be Life

New planet discovered

This is the first extra-solar system planet that could possibly support earth-type life based on size /gravity /composition. As yet there is no evidence at all that it actually does support life. Nevertheless, speculation is running rampant and SETI is on the watch. Should life be discovered, imagine the implications. Everything we know about the evolution of life is extrapolated from an N = 1.

One of the intriguing things is how close this planet is. Image looking at earth from this vantage point. Humans would be at a stage prior to civilization, agriculture, settlements, and extremely low population densities. What would you conclude about the future of this species?

Bob: Darwin's timeline - well not quite

This is cool - dino timeline.
Or the main timeline link.
With luck we will be able to do this with our Darwin timeline.
For now, log into darwinsafari, click on docs, and add data to the Darwin time spread-sheet.

Also we need a coupla people to help Carlos implement this...

Joy's New and Hot & Book Review, Week 4

Corals: "More evolved" than humans?

Scientists at the ARC coral reef research center in Australia have been sequencing the coral reef genome and so far have found 10,000 genes, and still have a "long way to go" until they finish, predicting the coral to have between 20 and 25 thousand genes. Humans have around 23,000.

The scientists are miffed as to why such simple creatures would have such a large genome. However, since corals are near the root of the tree of life studying their genes could shed light on the functioning and development of complex features in vertebrates such as the immune system. Some of the sequences shared with vertebrates have to do with stress and immune responses.

This research could also help scientists understand the immune response of the coral, in its relation to that of vertebrates, since human and coral gene similarity suggests that they may function in similar ways. This knowledge of the immune system could help in development or ways of planning to protect the coral.

The coral genome is also shedding a new light on evolution. Animals shed genes during evolution; corals, however, take as long as 5 years to reach sexual maturity, and thus the rate of turnover is very low. Thus, coral could possibly be a "living museum of ancestral animal genes."

Here is the link to the article.

Also, here is my book review at Amazon for Aydon's Charles Darwin.

Sagar's New and Hot (Week 4)

Janet Browne is at it again. While she is most famous for writing the two volume biography of Darwin, her newest project is "a few branches away from Darwin on the evolutionary tree." She, with collaborators, is writing a new book that chronicles the evolution of human representations of gorillas from the Victorian era all the way up to now.

Browne says in the article, "The trajectory is from a beast that's thought to be ferocious to the point where naturalists, including George Schaller and Dian Fossey , turn this imagery on its head and claim gorillas are actually very like humans, sociable and friendly and domesticated."

She is also thinking about writing a third volume to Darwin's biography. This one would be about Darwin's legend and his status in culture after his death.

For a good summary of Janet Browne's life as well more information about her upcoming projects read the full article here .

Also, here is my book review of The Reluctant Mr. Darwin on Amazon.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Woof Woof! Robbie's Week 4 New and Hot

A dog wagging its tail (gasp) to the right! via Wikimedia.

According to research reported in the New York Times article "If You Want to Know if Spot Loves You So, It's in His Tail," dogs show emotional asymmetry in their brains just as humans do.

In humans the left side of the brain is apparently associated with attachment, love, positive feelings, a slow heart rate, etc while the right side of the brain is associated with depression or fear. The cool thing is that this kind of emotional asymmetry has been shown to exist in a variety of different animals, now including dogs.

Dogs show emotional asymmetry by wagging their tails with a bias towards the right when they are pleased and by wagging their tails with a bias to the left when they're fearful. This would be the expected expression of emotional aymmetry because the left cortex of the brain is mostly associated with the control of skeletal muscles on the right side of the body (and vice versa).

I think that Darwin would be pretty impressed with these findings because of his interest in the expression of emotions in humans and animals. In Cyril Aydon's biography of Darwin (reviewed on Amazon), a few of my favorite sections included Darwin's thoughts about Jenny the Ape. Those few sections make me think that Darwin wouldn't be too surprised to find out that other animals exhibit the same kinds of brain asymmetry as we do.

Also cool (and I'm sure you all have seen this): it was recently discovered that one gene for the control of a single growth factor is responsible for dogs' size variation. A little of Darwin's artificial selection at work, eh?

Becca's New and Hot-- Week 4

My article comes from Scientific American online, at It addresses an interesting topic from the more scientific end of the evolution news spectrum, with the headline "Jumping 'Junk' DNA May Fuel Mammalian Evolution."

Essentially, the article explains a mechanism by which novel functional DNA may arise. Researchers (from Stanford!) did a study where they looked for sequences of DNA in so-called DNA "deserts", or large areas without much functional DNA, that were conserved across different species of mammals. If a section was conserved across humans, chimps, rhesus monkeys, dogs, mice and rats, the researchers considered it highly conserved. As the logic goes, a segment conserved over so many species was conserved for a reason, or else small mutations would have added up. The segments are also located "within striking distance" of genes important during embryological development, so the scientists inferred that they might have some regulatory power. These sections have moved around from species to species, giving them the designation of "transposons," so they would be turned on at different times in different species and cause different outcomes. Basically, as biologist Gill Bejerano puts it, "evolution may have harnessed the bits of junk DNA to control the activities of the nearby genes."

This is a very exciting development, as one of the most mysterious parts of evolution is uncovering molecular mechanisms for it to work; the researchers from the Human Genome Project that made the junk DNA discovery believe they have found a powerful new tool for that to happen. Next step: figuring out what the other 95% of junk DNA does!

Also, my book review is online at with Lauren's, Josh's, and Erika's!

Roarke's New and Hot (Week 4)

Recently uncovered historical evidence reveals that Darwin's publisher was advised by the Reverend Whitwell Elwin not to publish the Origin of Species, and to instead publish a book about pigeons, because (as we all know) "everyone is interested in pigeons." (Perhaps this kind of thinking can help us understand why Darwin's contemporaries were so eager to read about barnacles.)

Luckily for us, and the scientific community, Darwin's publisher decided to go against his friend's advice, and as a result, the theory of evolution by natural selection was able to take hold in the scientific community; the rest is history.

We can only imagine what might have happened had Darwin's publisher taken the advice of his adviser and not published the Origin of Species. If we're being honest, then probably nothing, as either Darwin would have found a different publisher or others like Wallace would have published their theories. Nevertheless, this little historical tidbit makes you wonder what other groundbreaking scientific theories may have been stifled because of religious or political influences.

You can see the full article at this webpage:,21985,21618798-5005961,00.html


Dani's New & Hot (Week 4) + Book Review Link

My new & hot this week is a follow-up on our discussion about the Darwin vs. Design debate.

Here's a summary of what happened at the Darwin vs. Design conference that occurred on April 13-14 at SMU in Dallas.

The presentations dealt with:
1) The universal constants that describe the earth's position in the universe and how the earth's position cannot be by chance, but that an intelligent being must have placed the earth where it is.

2) The vast diversity seen in the genome cannot be produced by random, undirected mutations, as Charles Darwin theorized, and thus intelligent design is the only other option.

3) The interconnected nature of biological complexity (i.e. one organ affecting another, which affects another, etc.) cannot be explained by Darwinism, and only makes sense under the idea of intelligent design.

My main argument against these arguments are HOW?! I'm interested in attending one of these conferences just to see how these "scientists" are attempting to back up their belief in intelligent design. For me, the scientific part of their argument (i.e. vast diversity observed in genome) is completely disconnected from the pro-intelligent design part (i.e. only an intelligent creator could have done this).

On another funner note, there's a game called "Darwin the Monkey," which is like Donkey Kong, but for computers:
The graphics are cute, but it has nothing to do with Charles Darwin himself besides the fact that spelling "DARWIN" gets you extra points.

And my book review:

See you guys tomorrow!

Erika's New and Hot, Week 4, and review of Aydon

I found this article from the New York Times called "Believing Scripture, but Playing by Science's Rules" ( The subject was this student, Marcus Ross, who just graduated with a Ph.D. in geoscience from the University of Rhode Island. He wrote a normal, accurate dissertation on mosasaurs, a type of marine reptile that went extinct about 65 million years ago. The weird thing is, Dr. Ross is a "young earth creationist." He believes the world is, at most, about 10,000 years old.
There are several issues this idea raises. First, Dr. Ross wrote his dissertation keeping two distinct paradigms in his mind simultaneously: is that intellectually honest? He describes using the numbers of science to do his research, keeping his opinions about their validity separate.
At the same time, some people don't think people with beliefs like Dr. Ross deserve to receive the title "philosphers of science," claiming students shouldn't be able to graduate without understanding and believing in the philosophy of science. Others strongly resist the idea of discriminating against anybody for their religious beliefs in an academic setting. Still others are afraid of what such students will use their degrees for- the famous example used in the article is of a young earth creationist who graduated from Harvard and worked under Stephen Jay Gould. In his circle, he used that degree and connection to make his "science" appear more legitimate. Interesting issues...
Here's the link to my book review:

Dawkins and (Bob)

There are several Dawkins videos of various lengths.
Here's one.
This should get you to a bunch of others.

Julie's New and Hot (Week 4) and Book Review

"The Cute Factor" by Natalie Angier from New York Times
January 3, 2006

In this article, the definition of cute and its evolutionary significance is explored. According to scientists who specialize in the evolution of visual signaling, there are a few common characteristics of being cute:

"bright forward-facing eyes set low on a big round face, a pair of big round ears, floppy limbs and a side-to-side, teeter-totter gait, among many others"

These cuteness factors "makes good Darwinian sense" in that those who are cute -- namely babies and other youngsters -- are young and vulnerable and need the assistance of adults. By being cute, babies appeal to an adult's interest and care and are thus more likely to survive.

Researchers do make the point that babies did not evolve to be cute.
Instead, physical anatomy, such as the brain size and the course of development, determined the appearance which then appealed to the adults. In other words, the cuteness detector is what evolved and not cuteness itself.

Advertisers have picked up on this cuteness tendency and thus aim for the cute look. Think of Furbies, Hello Kitty, and the Volkswagen Beetle. If you stop to think about these objects, they are actually pretty oddly shaped. Yet people generally still think they are cute and endearing.

I found this article to be interesting because I had never thought about why I think somethings are cute and why others are not. Breaking down something simple like cuteness into its even more basic parts seems like something Darwin would have done...

The article also used some interesting terms: "Darwinian sense" and "Darwinian aesthetics." This was the first time I had seen "Darwin" used in these ways. However, this usage brings up an interesting point of how Darwin's name is frequently thrown around as a label. Now that we are learning more about Darwin and his life, this term seems more ambiguous now than in the past. While I would assume that they are refering to his most popular ideas on evolution, there is much more depth that the name can suggest.

Here are some images that contrast cute versus not-so-cute:

Click here to read my book review on John Darton's The Darwin Conspiracy.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Bob: Ehrman on history and the bible

Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?
A Debate between William Lane Craig and Bart D. Ehrman
College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts
March 28, 2006

This is not directly related to evolution or Darwin.

However, I have several reasons for posting it.

1) It has a interesting discussion by Dr. Ehrman of how history is studied. To give you some idea, I have posted an extended quote below. This part does apply to our study of Darwin.

2) It illustrates the clash between academia and religion and possibly even the pointlessness of such debates. Thoughts on this??? It is clear that if you want to be an effective debater, you had better be an expert on your opponent's subject.

3) Dr. Ehrman will be on campus this week. Unfortunately, his talk is during our class.


"Let me begin by explaining in simple terms what it is that historians do. Historians try to establish to the best of their ability what probably happened in the past. We can’t really know the past because the past is done with. We think we know that past in some instances because we have such good evidence for what happened in the past, but in other cases we don’t know, and in some cases we just have to throw up our hands in despair.

It is relatively certain that Bill Clinton won the election in 1996. It may be somewhat less clear who won the election next time. It’s pretty clear that Shakespeare wrote his plays, but there’s considerable debate. Why? It was hundreds of years ago, and scholars come up with alternative opinions. It’s probable that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, but we don’t have a lot of eyewitness testimony. Historians try to establish levels of probability of what happened in the past. Some things are absolutely certain, some are probable, some are possible, some are “maybe,” some are “probably not.”

What kinds of evidence do scholars look for when trying to establish probabilities in the past? Well, the best kind of evidence, of course, consists of contemporary accounts; people who were close to the time of the events themselves. Ultimately, if you don’t have a source that goes back to the time period itself, then you don’t have a reliable source. There are only two sources of information for past events: either stories that actually happened based on, ultimately, eyewitness accounts or stories that have been made up. Those are the only two kinds of stories you have from the past – either things that happened or things that were made up. To determine which things are the things that happened, you want contemporary accounts, things that are close to the time of the events themselves, and it helps if you have a lot of these accounts. The more the merrier! You want lots of contemporary accounts, and you want these accounts to be independent of one another. You don’t want different accounts to have collaborated with one another; you want accounts that are independently attesting the results. Moreover, even though you want accounts that are independent of one another, that are not collaborated, you want accounts that corroborate one another; accounts that are consistent in what they have to say about the subject. Moreover, finally, you want sources that are not biased toward the subject matter. You want accounts that are disinterested. You want lots of them, you want them independent from one another, yet you want them to be consistent with one another."

Dr. Bart D. Ehrman

Josh's New and Hot (week 4) - The Brain! and a book review.

Click here for the article.

Scientists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) have recently discovered that the centralized (spelled {centralised: in the UK!) nervous system is actually quite a lot older than we previously thought. It sounds like the past concensus was the vertebrates and invertebrates had vastly differing nervous systems. Vertebrates have a spinal cord running along their back. The living fossil Platynereis dumerilii (annelid worm) that EMBL was studying have a rope-ladder-like chain of nerve cell clusters running along their belly, while many other invertebrates have their nerve cells distributed diffusely over their body.

Researchers at EMBL compared the molecular fingerprint of Platynereis nerve cells with those of vertebrates. The findings reveal that these fingerprints were very similar. Gáspár Jékelyuch said, "A complex arrangement could not have been invented twice throughout evolution, it must be the same system" which means that "Platynereis and vertebrates have inherited the organisation of their CNS from their remote common ancestors."

Once again, we have more scientific proof that all living things are basically related. For many religious people this represents a huge stumbling block: How can humanity be considered the apple of God's eye when so much evidencing is mounting that we are not unique? As science progresses, the great mysteries of human distinction like "personality", "beauty", and, with this discovery, the brain and "thought" are slowly being understood. The very things that make Homo Sapiens human is now explained by empirically, and, as it turns out, we aren't as special as we thought. What a blow to our hubris!

On the other hand, this close relation to other creatures is understandably scary since it could be dehumanizing humanity. If we really are as closely related to the animals as we think, what is the point of kindness, compassion, and mercy? Are they merely social institutions that are keeping us from our ultimate animal goal to propagate our species by whatever means necessary? These are difficult things to grapple with. The controversy over the blurring of these lines is clearly seen in cases such as this in Spain where an ape is being considered a candidate for human rights. Things are getting really sticky.

Also, check out my book review of Aydon's biography of Darwin.

And now, in the spirit of our class, I'll gladly insert a bit of levity. Enjoy!!

Evolution of Homer

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Alex: New and Hot, Book Review

Click me.

So this is an article about a study released about 2 or 3 weeks ago which claims that the rate at which humans are evolving is rapidly accelerating and has been faster than any other era. I think this article raises several interesting points. First, it disagrees with the notion that this is ever an 'origin' of man. That is, there was never a singular point in time, in which we became truly human. Next, it's interesting to note that our brain sizes are currently decreasing in size at a pretty rapid rate over the last 20 to 30 thousand years. Scientists aren't particularly worried about this because specific areas in our brain responsible for higher cognitive abilities have actually grown larger.

However, this does raise the question of what mental abilities are we losing out on? Instinct when in comes to throwing projectiles, for instance? I don't know. But it's something to think about. Our teeth are growing smaller as well, according to the article. In addition, (I heard this a few years back from a friend, so I don't know how credible the source is) it seems that human hearing have been deteriorating over over the ages, whereas human vision has increased in perceptive abilities. Maybe we are losing our physical prowess? Some element of it?

Furthermore, this last sentence in the article was pretty poignant, I thought.
What­ever the imp­li­ca­tions of the recent findings, McKee added, they high­light a ubiq­ui­tous point about ev­o­lu­tion: “every spe­cies is a tran­si­tion­al spe­cies.”
Evolution is never "end-all-be-all," it doesn't "lead" to a goal. It's just sort of a random stochastic process and we're just the end products of random luck. I think that's generally what this guy is saying.

Next, the book review:

I read this book:

I thought it was an interesting read
. I learned a lot about Darwin, that's for sure. Despite the fact that it's a novel, I don't think it was that hard to separate truth from fiction.

Kate's New and Hot (Week 4)...and bio review

Really, really, REALLY old fossils!

Hey all...

Last week CNN published a news article about two 385-million-year-old tree fossils (one from a trunk, and another from the crown of a tree), which scientists have determined are about 23 million years older than what was previously thought to be the earth's oldest tree (Archaeopteris). Click here for the article.

The tree has been named Wattieza and resembled a 30-foot palm. They think that these early trees flourished in forests, absorbing huge amounts of carbon dioxide and cooling the earth, right before the appearance of the first vertabrates on land.

One of the scientists working on the study, Christopher Berry, said "This is a spectacular find which has allowed us to recreate these early forest ecosystems." Yay trees :)

On a somewhat related note, you can find my review of Richard Darwin Keyne's Darwin bio Fossils, Finches and Fuegians here. Great book...

Cheers...and see you in class Wednesday, when I'll be telling you all about the Fuegians,