Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Anne's New and Hot - week 6

This week I read two interesting articles that relate to the Galapagos Islands and to eachother. I visited the Galapagos when I was eleven years old, and when I went the Galapagos was an extremeley exotic destination for most Americans. In fact, the only reason I went is becaue I am half Ecuadorian and I was living in Venezuela at the time. When I went, I didn't see any other Americans (except for Martha Stuart. ) When I read about the Galapagos Islands in the New York Times Travel Section, I was extremely surprised. The article is entitled, "Galapagos Unbound" and as I read I quickly realized the deeper significance of this title. All of the sudden a trip to the Galapagos is main stream for the American tourist. The article that I read describes a new brand of kayaking tours through the Galapagos. The tone of the article makes it seem like the Galapagos is just another typical adventure vacation. I find that troubling when it comes to the next article I read recently in the BBC.

The aricle in the BBC, entitled, "Galapagos Islands 'facing crises'" describes the new problems in the delicate habitat of the Galapagos Islands. The article was published in April 2007. Apparently, recently, a UN delegation from Unesco, the environemental branch of the UN, gave an official warning of threats to the ecology in the Galapagos. The article mentions the increase in tourism as one of the possible effects, but I see it as a major effect. With articles like the one in the New York Times it is clear that there has to be some sort of control of the toursim. However, as a major source of income in Ecuador, it is difficult to see any possibile solution.

The articles can be found here:
New York Times article:
BBC article:

Anne’s Review of The Voyage of the Beagle

Charles Darwin's account of his journey to South America is a detailed daily account of his trip and the detail and accuracy with which he describes the scenes is truly remarkable. The fact that Darwin compiled and published his actually travel log from his trip presents the modern day reader with a unique view into Darwin during his formative years. The adventures and dangers that the young Darwin encounters on his epic journey show a side of the great scientists that I hadn’t thought of when I think of the most famous photograph of the frosty-bearded and mysterious scientist dressed all in black.
While reading his accounts, and the great detail involved in his observation it is easier to understand the uniqueness that such an acute attention to detail brings Darwin as a scientist. Darwin’s observations and reflections span from the behavior and appearance of certain birds and insects, to the strata in mountainous cliffs, to the habits and differences among various indigenous groups. The ways Darwin forms relations among such groups gives us insight into the synthesizing power of his mind. It is this very synthesizing power which aids him later in his ultimate formulation of the theory of evolution. I give Darwin’s “Voyage of the Beagle” four and a half out of five stars.

Sagar's New and Hot (Week 6)

During the recent Republican debate, a moderator asked Senator McCain whether or not he believes in evolution and then asked the entire field the same question. The short clip can be found on youtube here . Although the transcript has already been posted, I think actually seeing it being played out makes it easier to take the journey. One interesting note about the three Republicans who raised their hands against evolution is that it seems that none of them intend to actively pursue placing intelligent design into science classes. This question arose in this article and Huckabee, one of the three candidates, responded that he does not expect public schools to teach creationism.

On to a more scientific new and hot: the first marsupial genome has been completely mapped!!!! And the lucky marsupial is none other than the lucky opposum. It was found that that oppossum has 18,000 to 20,000 protein coding genes, many of which have counterparts in placental mammals. When scientists looked at the newer elements of the human genome that are not present in marsupials, they found that 95% of the new changes did not affect protein coding genes but rather the regions of the genome that regulate gene activity. This means that lots of recent (and by recent I mean from 180 million years ago to now) evolution has involved regulating genes differently rather than making or altering protein coding genes. The article can be found here . Check it out!

Also here is my review of Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle.

Alex's New and Hot and Beagle Review

New and Hot:
The Encyclopedia of Life

So basically, check this website out when it goes live: A coalition of 7 major museums and institutions, including the Smithsonian, Harvard University, Chicago's Field Museum, the Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, the Biodiversity Heritage Library Consortium, the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Atlas of Living Australia have gotten together to undertake the monumental task of making an Encyclopedia of Life. The first few webpages of this site apparently went live earlier this morning.

The basic premise of this website is that all 1.8 million known species in the world will be categorized and the information recorded on the website, which will be freely accessible to everyone. So for instance, an entry on any particular organism might have pictures, sounds, amateur sightings, etc. But in addition to that, the website caters more than just the amateur web-surfer by offering links to hardcore science articles as well.

Here are images of the first few demo pages that were released to the public today. Polar Bear entries:

Now for some numbers:

  • 1.8 million species they know for sure.
  • 8 millions species is their estimate of total that are in existence right now.
  • 10 years is how long they think the project will take.
  • $12.5 million is the amount of grant money they have for the first two and a half years. From the MacArthur and Sloan Foundations.
Lastly, in what's yet another manifestation of Web 2.0, this EOL dealio will be user driven. AKA everyone apparently can contribute, making it basically a monstrosity much like Wikipedia, presumably. Awesome.

Beagle Review:
Click here.

This book was supposed to be the 2nd edition of Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle. Definitely a classic and definitely worth a read. But you should probably buy another publisher's version because I found a few blatant typos in this copy. Although there weren't that many and it didn't detract from the reading too much, why own a copy with errors in it?

As far as the book itself is concerned, I thought it was pretty good in teaching us about Darwin and his travels. It reads a lot like a travel guide, in that he just catalogues all these animals and plants and things that he encounters. His skills of observation are amazing, it's really no surprise that he eventually gathered the data that he felt was necessary to back up his claims of evolution. He definitely pays amazing attention to detail.

On the other hand, he just jumps into chapter 1 page 1 with a lot of this dry detail and it was hard to get interested in the book at first. He definitely tries to use some fancy prose at parts ("Goodbye, Australia!"... I liked that part a lot) and he's really good at it, too, I wonder why he doesnt try to be more dramatic more of the time, haha.

The main thing that I found attractive about this book is that Darwin not only talks about the flora, fauna, and geology of the places he visited, but he also talked about the cultural and societal influences that they had. The section in his book about the South American gauchos was reallly really interesting. In addition, I'd read the Darwin Conspiracy (a novel!) before i read this book, it is very interesting to see how the descriptions of the Fuegians drastically differed, even though some of the actual events that occurred in the two works were the same.

And it's interesting that although Darwin does talk about the indigenous people somewhat, it seems that he focuses on the European Settlers (subsequent immigrants) and their culture a lot. And this part I found especially fascinating, I suppose because there wasn't that language barrier (Like the part where he criticizes Brazilian slavery).

Oh and the last thing I want to say is that the part on the Galapagos was really underwhelming. After all this buildup and suspense I thought he was going to say something really profound, haha. And he definitely did foreshadow some of the ideas of adaptive radiation in that chapter both about the finches and the tortoises, but it wasnt what I was expecting. In fact, the Galapagos chapter basically read like all the other chapters in its mechanical recollection of all the details of his observations.

Overall, awesome book.

Chad's New and Hot, Week 6

Darwin Exhibit!

My new and hot for this week is an article revealing that an exhibit on Charles Darwin is to be opened in Chicago Field Museum this summer. This exhibit, running from June 15 through the end of the year, will feature manuscripts and other pieces of Darwin’s personal belongings. The exhibit will focus not only on his writings while onboard the Beagle and the way that he developed his theory of natural selection, but it will also feature letters to his wife and family portraits that show Darwin’s human side.

To find out more about this exhibit, I visited the museum’s website and was amused to immediately find an example of a debate that we brought up earlier in class. Under the link for the exhibit’s info page, the first sentence of the description reads: “For 21 years, he kept his theory a secret.” I just found it pretty funny, but also a little troublesome, that they presented this reason for Darwin’s delay as a concrete fact although Darwin’s true motives are still not known for certain. Maybe this exhibit plans to emphasize the elements of Darwin’s life and writings, such as his religion, that support this particular theory. With the American Museum of Natural History (New York), the Field Museum (Chicago), the Museum of Science (Boston), the Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto), and the Natural History Museum (London) all cooperating on this exhibit, it promises to be an exciting one.

Julie's Voyage review

Here is my review of The Voyage of the Beagle.

I had the amazing opportunity to go to Torres del Paine while I was studying abroad in Chile last quarter. While I was there, I saw... guanacos! Here are a few photos I took of the guanacos. The second photo is a picture of a herd of guanacos.

Random side note: I also tried some alpaca (a relative of the guanaco) while in Peru. It tastes sort of like beef... :)

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Roarke's New and Hot (Week 6)

A panel on the ethics of genetic engineering was held yesterday at Stanford, hosted by the Center on Ethics and the Program in Ethics and Society. The panel focused on the use of new technologies that are used to conduct genetic screens of embryos, allowing parents to pick and choose the "best." Such genetic "hyper-parenting" is sometimes compared to eugenics (the so-called "self-direction of human evolution"), which we'll talk more about when I give my presentation on Wednesday. Panelists included Professor Michael Sandel of the Program in Ethics and Society, Law Professor Hank Greely, and Pediatrics Professor David Magnus, three preeminent scholars in this area.

As the development of such genetic technologies will likely proceed at a faster rate than the government will be able to keep track of and control, discussions like this one held yesterday are urgently needed so that we, as a nation and a planet,, can develop legal standards to regulate such practices.

Is genetic engineering really unethical, or is it merely a more scientifically advanced way of ensuring a happy life for one's children? Hyperparenting is something parents of all species have been doing forever in countless other ways, from choosing a good mate, to providing nutrition, shelter, and support to the growing child, to more modern variations like paying for SAT prep and private school tuition, but is it going too far to actually genetically predetermine our childrens' traits? While such technologies will of course only be available to the wealthy, isn't that true to some extent for most of the advantages hyper-parents give to their kids today anyway?

Read the brief daily article here.


Dani's New & Hot :: New Theory of Environmental Inheritance

I see Lamarck written all over this....

The "Children of the 90s" research group, in collaboration with Bristol University found data that supported the theory that not only are genetic information and environmental influences important factors in how people grow as adults, but that a grandfather's and father's experiences can also affect a child's growth. The paper entitled, "Sex-specific, Male-line Transgenerational Responses in Humans" was published in the European Journal of Human Genetics in February 2006. The entire paper can be found here, or you can find a nice summary here.

The researchers found the following correlations:
1. Children whose grandfathers had limited access to food during his slow growth period (9-12 years old before puberty) lived longer.*

2. Sons whose fathers began smoking before 11 years of age had a higher BMI at 9 years old than sons whose fathers had started smoking later on in life.

3. Granddaughter mortality rates are linked to grandmother's access to food during her fetus/infant stage whereas grandson mortality rates are linked to grandfather's access to food during his slow growth stage.*

*The cross-generational data was collected from Overkalix, a community in Northern Sweden.

If the results of this study is valid (correlation may not mean causation), then it means that genes that are turned on/off during our lifetime due to certain experiences, remain so as we pass them onto our offspring. That is to say, our life experiences affects not only our somatic genome, but our germ line genome as well. This theory, if true, would have HUGE implications on our understanding of genetic inheritance. It also implies that our behavior now will have longterm effects on future generations, putting greater responsibility on us to live "better." And finally, it presents that possibility that evolution can be directed by our actions.

My Voyage of the Beagle review can be found here.

Beagle Quotes

"The character of the higher and more educated classes, who reside in the towns, partakes, but perhaps in a lesser degree, of the good parts of the Gaucho, but is I fear stained by many vices of which he is free. Sensuality, mockery of all religion, and the grossest corruption, are far from uncommon. Nearly every public officer can be bribed." (144)

"While in the boats I got to hate the very sound of their voices." (182)

"The perfect equality among the individuals composing these tribes, must for a long time retard their civilization. As we see those animals, whose instinct compels them to live in society and obey a chief, are most capable of improvement, so is it with the races of mankind." (183)

"I frequently got on their backs, and then, upon giving a few raps on the hinder part of the shell, they would rise up and walk away, but I found it very difficult to keep my balance." (279)

Erika's New and Hot, Week 6, Voyage Review, and 2nd half quotes

My review is here:

My favorite quotes from the rest of the book are these:

p. 408: A small, snow-white tern "Little imagination is required to fancy that so light and delicate a body must be tenanted by some wandering fairy spirit."

p. 442: "Where on the face of the earth can we find a spot, on which close investigation will not discover signs of that endless cycle of change, to which this earth has been, is, and will be subjected?"

p. 444: "The form of the orange-tree, the cocoa-nut, the palm, the mango, the tree-fern, the banana, will remain clear and separate; but the thousand beauties which unite these into one perfect scene must fade away; yet they will leave, like a tale heard in childhood, a picture full of indistinct, but most beautiful figures."

My "new and hot" is on the New York Times' "Genes Take Charge, and Diets Fall by the Wayside" ( It talks about how everyone has a nature weight range. The scientist, Dr. Hirsch, wanted to see what happened to fat cells when people lost weight. He found out that the fat cells shrunk to normal size, but more interestingly, based on other measurements he took, he determined that these people were acting as if they were starved. As soon as they were let out of the experiment, almost all the patients regained their hard-lost weight. When he forced thin people to gain weight, they also lost it very quickly when the experiment terminated. The obese patients’ metabolism slowed down when they were fed less food, so they had to eat hardly anything to lose weight, and the thin patients’ metabolism increased by 50%, so they had to eat immense amounts of food to gain weight. When both ate until they were full, their weights returned to what they had been before. This natural weight strongly corresponded with their biological parents' weights, whether or not they had been raised in the same household. To me, it was a startling example of the variety in human beings. Such variety would surely be useful- in colder conditions or during famines, the people with more fat cells would survive better. With warmer temperatures and poor resources, thinner people who needed fewer calories to feel full would do better. Perhaps even Darwin would be surprised at how much is controlled by inheritance, and how much variety is present within our own species.

Becca's New and Hot-- Week 6: Lonesome George (again)

Who should I see on the front of the New York Times Science section this morning, but our old (really old, like around 70 years old) friend Lonesome George? An op-ed entitled "A Lonesome Tortoise-- and the Search for a Mate", it details the life and loves (or lack thereof) of George, perhaps the world's last remaining Geochelone nigra abingdoni. You all should actually read the article-- it's hilarious. Especially the part about "Lonesome George's girlfriend", a Swiss graduate student who-- no joke-- covered her hands in genital secretions of female tortoises and stroked him back in 1993 to investigate whether George would be capable of copulating.

All jokes aside, though, the article makes some interesting points about the ethics of conservation. If researchers do find George a mate at last, and he "agrees" to participate in mating-- which, given that he has never been exposed to a female of his species, is far from certain-- should this erase some of our collective guilt for coming so close to wiping out an entire species? And can we expect him to cooperate with our wishes? After all, it is humanity's fault that George was isolated to begin with. I agree with the writer, John Tierney, in his statement that "given George’s antisocial personality — he doesn’t like being around any other tortoises, male or female — we need to be considerate. If ultimately he’s just not that into Eve [the female Pinta turtle that will hopefully soon be found], then let Lonesome George be lonesome. We can’t expect him to save the species for our sake. It has to be good for him, too." Too true.

The full article can be found at Enjoy!

Also, my Beagle review is at, with everyone else's!

Artificial Selection in Cabbages: Robbie's Week 6 New and Hot

In The Origin of the Species, Darwin uses artificial selection (in which the fitness of a trait is determined by its usefulness to humans) to illustrate the plausibility of natural selection. Darwin, for whatever reason, decided to use pigeon breeding as his example of artificial selection. He very easily could have used the wild cabbage Brassica oleracea (a member of the mustard family) as an exemplar species, but it would've been a definite trade off: less feathers and droppings, more cabbagey smell.

Humans artificially selected for various Brassica traits before the time of the Greeks, either intentionally or accidentally. This selection gave rise to a number of important cultivars, including cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli, kale, and cauliflower.

Darwin himself thought that these plants were interesting, because he spent hours watching Brassica seedlings sprouting in his seminal work The Power of Movement in Plants. Here's an excerpt from a part of the book where he's just winding up to talk about Brassica for pages and pages:

"THE following chapter is devoted to the circumnutating movements of the radicles, hypocotyls, and cotyledons of seedling plants; and, when the cotyledons do not rise above the ground, to the movements of the epicotyl. But in a future chapter we shall have to recur to the movements of certain cotyledons which sleep at night.

'Brassica oleracea (Cruciferae)'.--Fuller details will be given with respect to the movements in this case than in any other, as space and time will thus ultimately be saved..."

Anyway, here are pictures of some modern Brassica cultivars: kale, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower.

all via Wikimedia.

Kate's New and Hot (Week 6)

More really really old fossils (just one actually).

Hey all,

This week my new and hot is from Scientific American and it's about a really old lobster fossil (120 million years old, to be exact) that was found in the Mexican state of Chiapas. The article is from May 2nd and the headline is "Mexico finds world's oldest lobster fossil." This fossil is estimated to be some 20 million years older than the previously oldest known lobster fossil. What's really cool about it though, is that it was alive when Africa and the Americas were just breaking apart, and it's from a genus which is in Africa today, but not found in the Americas. After the split, American and African lobsters evolved separately, and that's why they differ today.

The ancient species is called Palinurus Palaceosi and is one of the world's best preserved lobster fossils. Ninety percent of the body was preserved in very fine mud. You can see the whole article here.


Monday, May 7, 2007

Joy's New and Hot, Week 6, and Beagle Review

Evolutionary Psychology and Economics

My new and hot comes from a column on called "Evolution, Immigration, and Trade." Basically, the article uses evolutionary psychology to explain some attitudes about foreign immigration and why those attitudes don't make sense in today's society. One of the main arguments is that since our ancestors lived in an essentially static world, where there wasn't much social or technological innovation from one generation to the next, if a particular group of humans gained something, it came at the expense of another. In today's global society however, this type of thinking doesn't make sense, and economists have trying to make the case for a long time that voluntary trade is beneficial to both parties (otherwise it wouldn't be voluntary). With this in mind, immigrant workers coming to the U.S. to exchange their labor for money is a positive sum. The idea that immigrant labor must come at the expense of native workers is simply economically untrue, and is influenced by this evolutionary psychology. Another point made is that humans' social order evolved in the form of groups, and that this group mentality comes into play when considering those from an outside group (immigrant workers) and seeing them as a threat. Basically humans have evolved these certain psychological characteristics, but today's society is so complex that these mentalities don't apply, and we should keep this in mind when evaluating trade and public policy.

So, this article was written by a professor of law and economics, not an evolutionary biologist, but it sounds good and pretty much like common sense to me (I'm not a scientist either). (He also wrote a book called
Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom. Has anyone heard of it?) What do you think, Dr. Bob? Plus it's easy to read something with an argument you already agree with (immigration policy) and think the argument sounds sensible. Any comments, guys?

Here is my Beagle Review.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Josh's New and Hot (Week 6) - The Great Ape Debate - and book review...

Click here for the story from the Guardian.

This week's new and hot was mentioned in one of my earlier posts. It seems that primates everywhere are appreciating a surge in interest due to the debates in Europe over their status as humans. This week's headlines have read "Chimps are people too", "They're going ape in Austria", and the charming "Monkey see, monkey sue" referring to the 26 year-old Viennese chimp Hiasl whose supporters are struggling to get his status changed to "human."

Apparently, the animal sancturary where he was living went bankrupt. Since he was stolen from
Sierra Leone in 1982, he is completely unable to live in the wild and thus must live with people who can take care of him. Unfortunately, Hiasl is not an inexpensive ape, costing over $6,800 each month in food and vet bills. Since Austrian law says that only people can receive money, his adopted parent Paula Stibbe, a Briton who teaches English in Vienna, is hoping that lawyer Eberhart Theuer can push his status through court. Unfortunately, many animals rights activists like president of the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals say, ``I'm not about to make myself look like a fool'' by getting involved. They worry that chimpanzees could gain broader rights, such as copyright protections.

Now I'm not saying that I believe Hiasl should be left to fend for himslef, but it does seem a bit odd to start extending the privileges of humans to animals. This, of course, treads into murky waters since we know that chimps are our closest relatives sharing 99.4
% of our genetic code. Who is to say that if we deny a very close species rights that courts will not take away rights for different races or ethnicities who could be construed as less than 100% similar to the majority.

Evolution doesn't always have to lead to eugenics, but it certainly has the ability to lead into that when we start to remake the way we define "human." Where does one species begin and the other end? If evolution is the gradual change of species over time, at what point in time do we take the snapshot that has the "perfect" chimp or the "perfect" human being? Professor Sommer of University College of London says, "
It's untenable to talk of dividing humans and humanoid apes because there are no clear-cut criteria - neither biological, nor mental, nor social." This is very strange issue for evolution and the Law to collide.

FYI - The picture is of Ronald Reagan in "Bedtime for Bonzo" (The monkey is Bonzo)!

Also, check out my Voyage review here!

Julie's New and Hot (Week 6)

Horsenettle (Solanum carolinense)

"Male and bisexual flowers studied"
From Science Daily on May 2, 2007

This article summarizes the results from studies published in The American Naturalist about the "evolutionary engima" in which both male and bisexual flowers on the same plant. This type of sexual strategy is used by about 4000 different plant species. Researchers studying the horsenettle found that male flowers increase the reproductive success of both males and females. They present possible explanations such as:

1. Making smaller male flowers would save resources that could be used for other needs such as seed development.
2. Male flowers may be more attractive to pollinators.
3. Male flowers may required less pollen from pollinators, making more pollen available overall.

I found this interesting because before I had thought that the main advantage of this sexual strategy would be to increase genetic diversity. This makes me wonder about other species, such as the hemaphroditic nematode C. elegans. In a natural population of C. elegans, males are not common. However, in the lab, males can be induced by heat shock or by maintainence through hemaphrodite and male crosses (as male sperm is more successful than hemaphrodite sperm). So why do males emerge during heat shock? Why is male sperm more successful?

Republican debate transcript

Here is the section of the Republican debate transcript dealing with evolution:


Moderator: Senator McCain, this comes from a reader and was among the top vote getters in our early rounds. They want a yes or a no. Do you believe in evolution?

McCain: Yes.

Moderator: I'm curious, is there anybody on the stage that does not agree, believe in evolution?

McCain: May I just add to that?

Moderator: Sure.

McCain: I believe in evolution. But I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also.