Archive: September, 2011
A critical reader commented on a previous column that I’ve been blind to something obvious when it comes to abiogenesis – the formation of life from non-life:
Once you bring up abiogenesis, that's a loser for naturalists/atheists. You need some type of genetic code, a method of replication, and metabolism all at the same time for a group of chemicals to survive for natural selection to work. I'm skipping over a bunch of other things, like all the amino acids have to have left-handed chirality, etc. And we keep having discoveries that push the sudden appearance of life (once conditions permitted) to just a blink of the eye in geological terms. "What could be the alternative to life coming from nonliving matter?"
(He’s quoting me there)
Legend has it that when asked by a theologian what the living world could tell us about a creator, biologist J.B.S. Haldane remarked that, “If He exists the creator has an inordinate fondness for beetles.” In his writings, Haldane, who died in 1964, noted that there are 300,000 species of beetle and only 10,000 species of mammals.
Some doubt has been cast on the exact wording and context of this quote, but according to Wikipedia, Haldane’s friend, Kenneth Kermack, told Stephen Jay Gould that the actual quote was “God has an inordinate fondness for beetles”, elaborating that, “Haldane was making a theological point that God is most likely to take trouble over reproducing his own image, and his 400,000 attempts at the perfect beetle contrast with his slipshod creation of man.”
Whether it’s 300,000 or 400,000 species, some of these beetles are extraordinarily beautiful. Even 47 million years ago, they shone in glorious colors, according to a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. More pictures and an explanation of the science can be found in this story from wired.com.
Evolution is such a hot topic that it was the subject not only of yesterday’s Doonesbury, but of this week’s Savage Love column. For those who aren’t familiar with it, Savage Love is an extremely well-informed sex column. So if you’re offended by sex, please stop here.
In response to a query from a woman who couldn’t experience orgasm, columnist Dan Savage turned to Salon.com writer Tracy Clark-Flory, who drew on evolutionary biology for insights. She pointed to the theory that female orgasms evolved because they were advantageous in males, just as nipples evolved in many male mammals because they were advantageous in females, and didn't do the males any harm. Such anatomical crossovers happen because the sexes share the same genes, with the exception of some on the Y chromosome. And developmental biologists say we start out in utero with proto-versions of both types of genitalia, so every part in one sex has an analogue in the other.
In a male, orgasm is clearly adaptive. A male who didn’t experience them might quit before he was finished, which would be detrimental to his reproductive success. Or in some cases, he might stay with the act too long at the expense of his own survival.
Anthropologists study humanity and our evolution, but they don't agree on when we crossed over the threshold to status as full "human beings."
The question crops up often, as it did this month over some new scientific articles describing 2-million-year-old fossils of humanlike creatures from South Africa.
Called Australopithecus sediba, members of this group had brains little bigger than those of chimps, but they walked upright and possessed humanlike hands - which scientists say looked as if they were good at making and using tools.
There’s a good way to be wrong in science and a bad way. When an international team of scientists announced last week they’d measured particles going faster than the speed of light, their colleagues thought they might be wrong, but in an honest way. Those surprising findings come from a European experiment described here, in which a beam of particles called neutrinos were sent 646 miles, from Switzerland to an underground detector in Italy. They arrived 60 nanoseconds faster than light should have travelled. Or so it appeared.
Physicists are skeptical because if this is confirmed, it would violate Einstein’s 1905 theory of special relativity, which showed that the speed of light is constant (in a vacuum), while time and space can expand and contract. According to Einstein, faster-than-light travel allows reversals of cause and effect. It would be possible, for example, to see a crime scene in which the victim collapsed from a bullet wound before the shooter fired.
Penn physicist Josh Klein said he was impressed with how careful the European team had been in checking their results. “They did a serious job of this,” said Klein, who has been studying neutrinos for more than a decade. If it’s wrong, it may not be any kind of obvious goof-up, he said. Perhaps there are subtle effects nobody knew about that threw off the accuracy of the measurements or gave the illusion the neutrinos had travelled faster than light.
It's a scenario worthy of any zombie movie: A virus infects a gypsy moth caterpillar and takes over its brain, putting it on a suicide mission. First, it's compelled to climb up high in the trees, where it dies in the midday sun. Then its body liquefies, and virus particles are spread downward with the first rain.
The behavior benefits the virus at the expense of the caterpillar.
Horror films borrowed the zombie concept from Haitian and African culture, where the term refers to a reanimated body that can be forced to do the bidding of a sorcerer. Nature shows the concept is not so far-fetched (though the victims aren't technically dead). The sorcerers can be viruses, fungi, or worms, and they don't need to use magic. They use evolution.
Perhaps resistance to evolution is just a widespread case of being embarrassed by our parents. In a series of papers released today, paleontologists made a case that humanity descended from a species called Australopithecus sediba – a South African hominid that lived close to 2 million years ago, had small brains, long, tree-climbing arms, and short stature. The males stood about 4’6” and the females were just around 3’0”.
But they had great hands with long, graceful looking fingers. “These were tool making hands,” said anthropologist John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin.
The papers, presented in the journal Science, give the most complete description of a set of a. Sediba fossils found in 2008, which include remains from five different individuals. Hawks was not an author of the paper but he’s been out to the site, and to him, the fossils emerging could finally help us piece together when and how we became human.
One of the many fascinating things about evolution is that it generates disputes that can help us all better understand what science is and how it differs from religion or other areas of human endeavor.
Just such an enlightening dispute cropped up recently between two readers who were kind enough to let me share some of their correspondence. It all started when Elisa Winterstein wrote a letter to The Inquirer, stating that scientists rely on faith just as religious people do by accepting the idea of abiogenesis - the notion that life arose from non-living matter.
Her contention is mirrored in dozens of other reader comments I've seen, stating that science, like religion, requires faith.