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Category: evolution

Faye Flam
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In the so-called war on cancer, if we’re ever to know our enemies and know ourselves, we have to understand evolution. And that means not just pledging allegiance to Darwin but understanding how evolution works and all its implications. Why? In an evolutionary view of the human body, our cells are modified...

In the so-called war on cancer, if we’re ever to know our enemies and know ourselves, we have to understand evolution. And that means not just pledging allegiance to Darwin but understanding how evolution works and all its implications. Why? In an evolutionary view of the human body, our cells are modified microbes and they retain the genetic machinery to revert to their ancestral, independent  states. When that happens, we get cancer.

Cancer will still plague us whether we have chemical carcinogens in the environment or not. Time is a carcinogen.  

Other writers have tackled the evolutionary biology of cancer, but I haven’t seen it expressed as succinctly and clearly as it was in the Sunday New York Times piece Why Everyone Seems to Have Cancer by George Johnson. He is author of the recent book...

We have 10 times more microbes than human cells in our bodies. Or this, which is almost the same: Nine out of 10 cells in the body are microbes.

Who says?

Everybody.

And they say it everywhere, all the time. But where does the figure come from?

Tabitha M. Powledge tries to track it down...

We have 10 times more microbes than human cells in our bodies. Or this, which is almost the same: Nine out of 10 cells in the body are microbes.

Who says?

Everybody.

And they say it everywhere, all the time. But where does the figure come from?

Tabitha M. Powledge tries to track it down in last Friday's On Science Blogs, and I won't spoil the ending.

She also looks at the recent chatter concerning Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the 18th century scientist who was discredited for his insistence that acquired characteristics can be inherited. He seems to be facing possible vindication in the wake of a Nature study finding that the fears of mice might be inherited by their offspring. Powledge considers the evidence and issues her verdict.

What puzzles...

Three billion years ago on Earth, something was happening.

Microbes that had evolved the ability to carry out photosynthesis floated on the surface of the ocean, using energy from sunlight to grow on carbon dioxide and water. When the microbes died, oxygen reacted with their carbon. But a tiny bit...

Three billion years ago on Earth, something was happening.

Microbes that had evolved the ability to carry out photosynthesis floated on the surface of the ocean, using energy from sunlight to grow on carbon dioxide and water. When the microbes died, oxygen reacted with their carbon. But a tiny bit of the organic matter from the microbes sank to the sea floor, where oxygen couldn't react with it. And so some oxygen remained.

These were among the earliest days of oxygen on Earth. The atmosphere then contained only 0.03 percent as much oxygen as today's atmosphere, but that was enough to set up a new dynamic.

I've cribbed this from Carl Zimmer's very nice column last week in The New York Times, "The Mystery of Earth's Oxygen." See Zimmer for more on oxygen's four-billion-year...

Being mammals ourselves, it’s natural for people to be curious about the early history of our clade, and therefore, science writers had no trouble generating interest in the subject matter of two Nature papers this week describing two Jurassic creatures living at the cusp of mammalian origin.

...

Being mammals ourselves, it’s natural for people to be curious about the early history of our clade, and therefore, science writers had no trouble generating interest in the subject matter of two Nature papers this week describing two Jurassic creatures living at the cusp of mammalian origin.

The challenge came in encapsulating the news, since the two papers came to very different conclusions.  

Both papers describe new fossils of squirrel-sized creatures of the group Haramiyida, an extinct branch on the evolutionary tree. One is a tree-climbing animal that the researchers conclude was a true mammal, implying that the haramiyida branched off after the origin of mammals. The other creature, however, was a ground-dwelling animal, complete with imprints of fur. It lived during the same era but does not qualify as a mammal thanks to a more reptilian type of inner ear.

Readers got a very different impression of the significance depending on...

Monogamous Mammals? Scientists Remain Perplexed and Confused
Faye Flam
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The biology of monogamy was a hot topic this week, with two high-profile papers both addressing the evolution of monogamy in mammals. The news stories varied wildly in their conclusions, especially when it came to extending the finding to our own species.

The two papers appeared in PNAS...

The biology of monogamy was a hot topic this week, with two high-profile papers both addressing the evolution of monogamy in mammals. The news stories varied wildly in their conclusions, especially when it came to extending the finding to our own species.

The two papers appeared in PNAS and Science. On Monday, Science announced it was lifting the embargo early on its monogamy paper to coincide PNAS, thus allowing both papers to be incorporated into the same news stories. That left the press a lot more time to report the PNAS paper than the one in Science.  

The PNAS study focused only on primates. Researchers used Bayesian statistics to attempt to sort out  which conditions led up to the evolution of monogamy, and which followed it. Their conclusion: Monogamy spread in primates because it allowed males to protect offspring from infanticide by rivals.  

The Science study included other...

A new story by Carl Zimmer on the evolution of complexity has followed a complex path into print.

Well, OK, maybe not so complex, but an interesting path, and one that many of us might be following soon.

The story, as Zimmer lays it out, begins on...

A new story by Carl Zimmer on the evolution of complexity has followed a complex path into print.

Well, OK, maybe not so complex, but an interesting path, and one that many of us might be following soon.

The story, as Zimmer lays it out, begins on his blog The Loom at National Geographic's Phenomena. There Zimmer explained that he had been thinking for some time about a story on how complexity evolves, but had trouble sorting out the arguments and finding an outlet where he could tell the story at the length he thought it required. At one point, he got an magazine assignment, but as he reported the story, he came to feel that it would not be right for that magazine, so he withdrew it.

He then found a partner in Thomas Lin, managing...

In a commentary in the British newspaper The GuardianKatherine Stewart asks why state legislatures are moving rightward while the...

In a commentary in the British newspaper The GuardianKatherine Stewart asks why state legislatures are moving rightward while the population of the U.S. "continues to trend moderately leftward." 

Her answer: smart, targeted donations from right-wing donors.

She writes:

Alabama, Tennessee, North Dakota, and Mississippi are among the latest to impose unprecedented restrictions on women's access to abortion services. All told, in the first three months of this year, 694 provisions related to reproductive health have come before state legislatures, more than half of them involving abortion restrictions.

We are seeing a similar surge of opposition to science education: in Missouri, Montana, Colorado, and Oklahoma, legislators...

Few creatures stir the imagination like the coelacanth. Scientists thought it had been extinct for millions of years, and then in the 1930s, a specimen seemed to have swum from the Devonian right into a fisherman’s net.

Now scientists have finally sequenced the genome of this elusive, primitive looking...

Few creatures stir the imagination like the coelacanth. Scientists thought it had been extinct for millions of years, and then in the 1930s, a specimen seemed to have swum from the Devonian right into a fisherman’s net.

Now scientists have finally sequenced the genome of this elusive, primitive looking creature to find out how slowly it’s really evolved, and to discern its relationship to those fish that dragged themselves onto land and became our ancestors. The news was announced in a paper in Nature.

At the LA Times, Eryn Brown covered the advance in this story, which told us that it was difficult to get DNA from this highly endangered fish but not how they finally did it. How does one go about getting a DNA sample from a five-...

Links--too numerous to describe in detail, but too good to pass up:

--Nicola Jones had a short update April 2 in Nature on the muzzling of Canadian government...

Links--too numerous to describe in detail, but too good to pass up:

--Nicola Jones had a short update April 2 in Nature on the muzzling of Canadian government scientists in seven federal agencies, which has drawn protests from Canadian science writers, among others. Jones reports that Canada's information commissioner has launched an investigation into the practice. Roxanne Palmer of International Business Times asks, in a longer story, which country is more open with regard to scientific research: Canada, the U.S., or China? The Tracker's carefully considered point of view...

A handful of pieces that ran last week describing the first proof of “reverse evolution” were so confusing and odd that I had to send them to some biologists I know for a reality check.

What I found weird was that the pieces described the loss of a previously adaptive trait as some sort of...

A handful of pieces that ran last week describing the first proof of “reverse evolution” were so confusing and odd that I had to send them to some biologists I know for a reality check.

What I found weird was that the pieces described the loss of a previously adaptive trait as some sort of shocker. In this latest case, scientists from the University of Michigan found that dust mites had gone from being parasitic to free-living, the change allegedly being surprising because the parasitic mites were thought to have evolved from a free-living ancestor.

The loss of a trait didn’t seems surprising to me, but maybe it was to biologists. It wasn't to the ones I consulted.    

Scientists have understood since Darwin that evolution is not an ascent up a ladder – it’s a process of adaptation to local environments (and some random drift.) The notion of “devolution” doesn’t make much sense in light of our...

Bora Zivkovic was born in Belgrade, Serbia when it was still Yugoslavia, but he was born again into the world of science blogging. As one of the founders of the annual Science Online conference (or unconference, as they like to call it), an editor at Scientific American, a prolific...

Bora Zivkovic was born in Belgrade, Serbia when it was still Yugoslavia, but he was born again into the world of science blogging. As one of the founders of the annual Science Online conference (or unconference, as they like to call it), an editor at Scientific American, a prolific blogger himself, and the author of 111,418 tweets as of this morning, Zivkovic uses, understands and pushes the boundaries of the science blogging world as well as anyone.

So when he decides to assess the current state of blog commenting, it's worth paying attention.

In a substantial post at Scientific American, he begins with a word or two on the recent article in which researchers say they found that found that uncivil comments can...

It can't be terribly comfortable to take a seat at the base of the dinosaur tree, but that's where a newly described creature, Nyasasaurus parringtoni, seems to rest. It's not yet certain, but Nyasasaurus could be the oldest dinosaur ever found, pushing the dawn of the dinosaurs, thought to have...

It can't be terribly comfortable to take a seat at the base of the dinosaur tree, but that's where a newly described creature, Nyasasaurus parringtoni, seems to rest. It's not yet certain, but Nyasasaurus could be the oldest dinosaur ever found, pushing the dawn of the dinosaurs, thought to have occurred about 230 million years ago, back in time another 15 million years.

While this discovery is unlikely to make too many people change their lunch plans, it does suggest that "dinosaurs emerged in the wake of the largest mass extinction of all time — the crash that occurred around the transition from the Permian to the Triassic period about 252 million years ago," writes the dinosaur blogger Brian Switek in Nature. Whether or not this beast, about the size of a Labrador retriever, was truly a dinosaur, it "sits...

(Disclaimer: I wrote about this issue for my WHYY blog. I don’t want to commit any Jonah Lehrer style double dipping, but I think the coverage of this issue is worth discussing here at the Tracker as well.)

It was open season on biblical creationism last week following the latest waffling weirdness to...

(Disclaimer: I wrote about this issue for my WHYY blog. I don’t want to commit any Jonah Lehrer style double dipping, but I think the coverage of this issue is worth discussing here at the Tracker as well.)

It was open season on biblical creationism last week following the latest waffling weirdness to come from a politician’s mouth. This time it was Marco Rubio, a U.S. Senator from Florida, who had this to say when a GQ interviewer asked him the age of the Earth:

I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I...

Somehow, Lee Alan Dugatkin persuaded Slate to run a long piece...

Somehow, Lee Alan Dugatkin persuaded Slate to run a long piece on Thomas Jefferson's minor obsession with the idea of Count George-Louis Leclerc Buffon, curator of the King’s Natural History Cabinet in France, that "because North America was a cold and wet clime, all species found there were weak, shriveled, and diminished—they were degenerate." It became known as Buffon's theory of new-world degeneracy.

Buffon, a scientist famous for his encyclopedia Histoire Naturelle, wrote 

that North America was a land of swamps, where life putrefied and rotted. Try to raise domesticated species—cattle, pigs, sheep, goats,...

[The following is a guest post by Faye Flam, a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer.]

For those of you too young to remember a time before Internet pornography, Playboy was a very popular magazine. Men could claim they bought it for the articles, and indeed, Playboy...

[The following is a guest post by Faye Flam, a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer.]

For those of you too young to remember a time before Internet pornography, Playboy was a very popular magazine. Men could claim they bought it for the articles, and indeed, Playboy established a niche combining degrading images of women with meaty pieces on politics, business and, yes, science. 

This week, the classic “girly” porno magazine featured an extensive interview with the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, which ranges over evolution, debunking creationism, the relationship between science and religion and animal rights. The format is Q & A – with T & A along the right margin. Richard Dawkins also poses for a picture, but he does not appear to be naked. 

Last time I looked at Playboy...