Tag Archives: evolution

ALERT: Two very good deals on two very good books

Every single regular reader of this blog has read or intends to read Stephen Jay Gould’s The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History. I just noticed that the Kindle version of it is available for $1.99, and I assume this is temporary. I already had the book on dead-tree matter, but I picked this up because ebooks are searchable! You will want one two.

Every single regular reader of this blog SHOULD want to read, or should have already read, Mary Doria Russell’s excellent binary set including The Sparrow: A Novel and Children of God. (The Sparrow is first, COG second.)

Right now, and I assume very temporarily, The Sparrow is also avaialble for $1.99.

A quick word about the Sparrow series. It has been classified as science fiction. Others have said, no, it is not science fiction, it is philosophy and spirituality. A lot of church groups read it because of its religious meaning and implications.

That is really funny because there isn’t a drop of religiosity in this series. There is a priest, but it is a priest mainly operating in a post-religion world. This series is primarily anthropology fiction, which happens to be set in a science fiction theme, and if anything, it deconstructs the central role of religious institutions and makes them look as potentially lame and potentially nefarious and as potentially impotent as the other institutions. Or, really, as products of human behavior as anthropologists understand it, the outcome of a mix of self interested behavior, bonding or revulsion, racism and in-group vs. out-group thinking, the power of institutions, ritual, tradition, class, and exploitation. Set, of course, in the background of co-evolution of morphology of predator and prey. There is also a linguistic theme addressing meaning creation (or lack there of: ouch), development of mind and behavior, language learning, and so on.

You have to read them, and now you can get one of them for two bucks! (Unfortunately COG seems regular price.)

Let me add this too, just noticed it, could be of interest for two bucks: The Science of Star Wars: The Scientific Facts Behind the Force, Space Travel, and More!.

Righting America: An odd book that you may like but that made me squirm

Righting America at the Creation Museum (Medicine, Science, and Religion in Historical Context) is a strange book and I do not fully approve of it, even though I’m mentioned in it (not in a bad way).

Here is the write-up of the book provided by the publisher:

On May 28, 2007, the Creation Museum opened in Petersburg, Kentucky. Aimed at scientifically demonstrating that the universe was created less than ten thousand years ago by a Judeo-Christian god, the museum is hugely popular, attracting millions of visitors over the past eight years. Surrounded by themed topiary gardens and a petting zoo with camel rides, the site conjures up images of a religious Disneyland. Inside, visitors are met by dinosaurs at every turn and by a replica of the Garden of Eden that features the Tree of Life, the serpent, and Adam and Eve.

In Righting America at the Creation Museum, Susan L. Trollinger and William Vance Trollinger, Jr., take readers on a fascinating tour of the museum. The Trollingers vividly describe and analyze its vast array of exhibits, placards, dioramas, and videos, from the Culture in Crisis Room, where videos depict sinful characters watching pornography or considering abortion, to the Natural Selection Room, where placards argue that natural selection doesn’t lead to evolution. The book also traces the rise of creationism and the history of fundamentalism in America.

This compelling book reveals that the Creation Museum is a remarkably complex phenomenon, at once a “natural history” museum at odds with contemporary science, an extended brief for the Bible as the literally true and errorless word of God, and a powerful and unflinching argument on behalf of the Christian right.

So, having read that, what do you think the book is about? What do you think the motivations of the authors are? Do you think this book is pro or con on the museum, on creationism, on evolution, on science, on science education?

Can’t tell, can you?

I am going to guess — and this is just a guess but an educated one — that the authors have intentionally made the position on creationism and evolution as ambiguous as possible in order to allow themselves to carry out, or to appear to carry out, a truly dispassionate and fair analysis of an interesting phenomenon, as academics with expertise in certain areas.

That sounds like a good thing, right? Well, it sounds like a good thing because I made it sound like a good thing. Let me try again.

It seems to me that these authors have carried out a real act of damage against the integrity of the academic enterprise, and against education and society in general, by failing to take a reasoned and fact based stand against what is widely recognized and easily proven as a huge stinking pile of dreckory. (We are open to suggestions on the spelling of “dreckory.”)

The Mennonite News review of this book says:

The book is not a defense of evolution but a comprehensive critique of the museum and the movement behind it. The writing is measured, devoid of bombast and bile, which makes the book effective as the authors rely on facts and cogent arguments. They describe exhibits that don’t adhere to stated principles, opportunistic applications of Scripture and dubiously employed uses of theology, history and science — all in a facility that douses visitors with a flood of information in a fast-paced environment that obscures the shortcomings. The Trollingers “slow it all down” so readers can more fully understand the Creation Museum.

But when we read these parts of the book, we do not see the authors describing exhibits or other aspects of the museum in a negative way, but rather, almost perfectly neutral.

One conservative Christian reviewer wrote:

At the outset let me say that this is not a book that I would recommend for your bedside table. It is neither enjoyable as a reading experience nor does it present a convincing argument. However, for Christians, especially conservative Christians who aim to take the Bible seriously, this book is important. I chose to read and review this book because I believe that it is vital for Christians to be aware of how liberal Christians and unbelievers talk with each other about us, conservatives. We need to know what arguments they find convincing. Don’t be mistaken, this book was not written for conservatives; it was written by two liberal Christians for liberal Christians and unbelievers.

… but when I read the text, while I don’t see apologetics, I see very little negative about fundamentalism (though Ken Ham himself takes some criticism).

Another review:

This is a thorough book, a measured book, a calm and reasonable book. It examines the young Earth Creationism of Answers in Genesis from both a social and a historical perspective, pointing out the gaping flaws in its own internal logic (for instance, placards warning that the physical process of the Flood was unlike anything else in history and placards comparing it to rain washing out a gully are about ten feet away from each other in the same room) and rounding things off with a mild admonition about how far such lunacy strays from the true essence of contemporary Christianity…a comprehensive, you-are-there overview of the center of what Ken Ham clearly hopes to be a network of such faux museums.

This reviewer finds lunacy in the flood myth, but if you didn’t know about the flood myth, fundamentalism, creationism, all that, and read large passages in Righting America, you would not find a reference to lunacy, and it would be hard to find an argument against the flood myth’s veracity.

People are seeing what they want to see in this book. I’m seeing balance and restraint. I don’t like balance and restraint when it comes to vicious, well funded, and coordinated attacks on education and society, and on science.

Here’s some more text from lay readers (not professional reviewers) to give more of a flavor:

This excellent book provides insight into fundamentalism, creationism and Ken Hamm’s “Answers In Genesis” organization. The book describes in detail the contents and informational structure of the Creation Museum and examines both the museum itself and the arguments presented within. The book presents analysis of the space as a museum, the arguments as they pertain to science and the Bible, and the overall movements of fundamentalism and creationism as they impact America’s political landscape.

This is an incredibly informative read for anyone curious about fundamentalist Christianity and the baffling arguments of young Earth creationists. I’m incredibly proud that the book’s two authors are faculty of my alma mater, the University of Dayton!

The Trollingers take their subject at hand seriously. After visiting the Creation Museum several times, thoroughly examining their literature (journals and elementary education pamphlets), discovering influential individuals’ histories, they spend several chapters simply laying out a comprehensive picture of the Creation Museum. They compare it to evolutionary natural history museums, then compare the museum with their own stated goals. The whole book is thoughtful, does not come to conclusions easily, and is respectful of the whole evolutionary/creation debate throughout. Highly recommended

And here’s another:

But Susan and William Vance Trollinger, married scholars (of English and history, respectively) at the University of Dayton, 70 miles from the Petersburg, Kentucky museum, do not ridicule this cultural phenomenon (as, for example, A. A. Gill did in Vanity Fair: “It is irredeemably kitsch…This cheap county-fair sideshow – this is their best shot?”). Perhaps the Trollingers assume that we readers will supply such disparagement ourselves. But their academic detachment and methodical critical assessment offer the best way to penetrate the topic. “As bizarre as the museum may seem to many Americans,” they write, “what happens inside its doors matters to all of us.”

I think you get the point.

I regard this aspect of the book as either a conceit of the academic, and that annoys the bejesus out of me, or a smoke screen. I’m pretty sure it is the former but I can not be sure, and that is the price one pays for this approach; uncertainty about motivation and intended meaning.

Other than all that, it is an interesting book and an interesting analysis. But, marred by what seems to be a motivated encasement in an unnecessarily ambiguous framework.

I know what you are thinking. An excellent piece of academic work should be dispassionate, should be ambiguous about taking sides, or avoid taking sides at all, bla bla bla.

To that I respond that for one, a piece of academic work that appears to not be taking sides is always taking sides. For two, this is not an issue in which one does not take sides.

I do think most people interested in the issue of creationism and evolution will find Righting America at the Creation Museum (Medicine, Science, and Religion in Historical Context) to be an interesting read. But I did not want to let this particular fastball go by the plate without smashing it with a bit of reality.

I like this book so much I’ve read it 3 times: Neotropical Companion

The Neotropical Companion by John Kricher came out years ago, in the late 80s if I recall correctly. I’ve got a copy of it around somewhere.

Screen Shot 2017-03-24 at 1.48.31 PMI loved that book because it did a great job integrating all the things in one place: animals, plants, habitats, evolution, etc. Even though I was working in the paleotropics at the time, I found it informative.

Then, more recently, I got a revised version of the same book. I’ve got it around somewhere. It is from the 1990s, I think. Great book, same idea as the first one, but with more in it, and a somewhat larger format. This dates to after my fieldwork in the rainforests, but overlapped with visits to arid regions in the tropics, though again, I’m paleo and the book is neo, but still great.

Then, I got a new copy of f Kircher’s book, The New Neotropical Companion. I got this one in the future! (Not quite published yet, but I think you can actually get it now.

Screen Shot 2017-03-24 at 1.48.36 PMThis is a serious book. To a large extent, the intended audience is folks who plan to travel in the neotropics and want a strong background in areas of evolutionary biology and conservation. But the book is very high level in terms of the material covered, the range of facts and scope of theoretical work brought to bear, and so on. It is easy to read, even engaging to read, but it is very very rich in content.

So, the book includes information on traveling, and seeing nature on your trip. But then it includes all that information on the nature itself. It is not a small book, not a field guide format (as the first version was), but it is worth lugging around if you are doing some serious visiting.

Screen Shot 2017-03-24 at 1.49.10 PMOr, if you are simply a student of the tropics, evolutionary biology, or nature (not and, but or, on all of that) this book will be an excellent addition to your library.

And, it should be in school libraries, and on the shelves of biology teachers. There are many well developed examples of wildlife and evolution in here, that can be expand on with further literature review (and the book provides a handle on that) for developing in class projects.

I’ve put the table of contents below. As you can see, the book is well organized and covers a lot of material. Also, it is a well produced (as is typical for this publisher, Princeton) and nice looking.

The author, John Kricher, is a biology professor at Wheaton. He’s also written: Galápagos: A Natural History, Tropical Ecology, A Field Guide to California and Pacific Northwest Forests (Peterson Field Guides), By John Kricher – The Balance of Nature: Ecology’s Enduring Myth, and a couple of book on tape thingies such as Ecological Planet – An Introduction to Earth’s Major Ecosystems: The Modern Scholar (well, not really tape, of course).

Screen Shot 2017-03-24 at 2.03.37 PMTABLE OF CONTENTS:

Preface 9
Acknowledgments 11
How to Use This Book 12
1 Welcome to the Torrid Zone 15
2 Why It Is Hot, Humid, and Rainy in the Tropics 29
3 Rain Forest: The Realm of the Plants 39
4 Finding Animals in Rain Forest 58
5 Sun Plus Rain Equals Rain Forest 73
6 Essential Dirt: Soils and Cycling 81
7 If a Tree Falls . . . Rain Forest Disturbance Dynamics 95
8 Evolutionary Cornucopia 113
9 Why Are There So Many Species? 134
10 Tropical Intimacy: Mutualism and Coevolution 155
11 Evolutionary Arms Races: More Coevolution, More Complexity 181
12 Cruising the Rivers to the Sea 205
13 Scaling the Andes 235
14 Don’t Miss the Savannas and Dry Forests 250
15 Neotropical Birds: The Bustling Crowd 262
16 From Monkeys to Tarantulas: Endless Eccentricities 319
17 Human Ecology in the Tropics 365
18 The Future of the Neotropics 377
Appendix Words of Caution: Be Sure to Read This 389
Further Reading 392
Index 417

Prehistoric Mammals by Don Prothero: Review of excellent new book

The Princeton Field Guide to Prehistoric Mammals ,by Donald R. Prothero, is the first extinct animal book that you, dear reader, are going to give to someone for the holidays.

screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-11-31-25-amThis book is an interesting idea. Never mind the field guide part for a moment. This isn’t really set up like a field guide, though it is produced by the excellent producers of excellent field guides at Princeton. But think about the core idea here. Take every group of mammal, typically at the level of Order (Mammal is class, there are more than two dozen living orders with about 5,000 species) and ask for each one, “what does the fossil record look like.” In some cases, a very few living species are related to a huge diversity of extinct ones. In some cases, a highly diverse living fauna is related to a much smaller number of extinct ones. And each of these different relationships between the present and the past is a different and interesting evolutionary story.

If you looked only at the living mammals, you would miss a lot because there has been so much change in the past.

The giant sloths may be extinct, but Don Prothero himself is a giant of our age among fossil experts. His primary area of expertise includes the fossil mammals (especially but not at all limited to rhinos). I believe it is true that he has personally handled more fossil mammalian material, in terms of taxonomic breath and time depth, across more institutional collections, than anyone.

Don has written several different monographs on fossil mammal groups, and recently, a general fossil book for the masses, that have, I think added to his expertise on how to produce a book like this. Illustrations by Mary Persis Williams are excellent as well.

screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-11-31-36-amA typical entry focuses on an order, and the orders are arranged in a taxonomically logical manner. A living or classic fossil representative is depicted, along with some boney material, in the form of drawings. Artist’s reconstructions, photographs, maps, and other material, with phylogenetic charting where appropriate, fills out the overview of that order.

The text is expert and informative, and very interesting. the quality of the presentation is to notch. The format of the book is large enough to let the artistry of the production emerge, but it is not a big too heavy floppy monster like some coffee table books are. This is a very comforatable book to sit and read, or browse.

It turns out that if you combine living and fossil forms for a given group, you get a much bigger picture of the facts underlying any one of a number of interesting evolutionary stories.

In addition to the order by order entries, front matter provides background to the science of paleontology, including phylogenetic method, taphonomy, etc. There is a bit of functional anatomy, and extra detailed material on teeth because, after all, the evolutionary history of man mammal groups is known primarily by analysis of (and discovery almost exclusively of) teeth.

The end matter includes a discussion of mammalian diversification, extinction, and an excellent index.

screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-11-31-46-amIf you wold like some background on how a scientist like Don Prothero writes a book like this, you can listen to this interview, in which we discuss this process in some detail.

One of the most important things about this book is that it is fully up to date, and thus, the only current mammalian evolutionary overview that is available, to my knowledge. In some areas of fossil mammal research (including in our own Order, Primates) there has been a lot of work over recent years, so this is important.

I highly recommend this excellent book.

The book as 240 pages, and 303 illustrations.

For your reference, I’ve pasted the TOC below.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

  • Preface 6
  • 1 The Age of Mammals 7
  • Dating Rocks 8
  • Clocks in Rocks 10
  • What’s in a Name? 11
  • How Do We Classify Animals? 12
  • Bones vs Molecules 15
  • Bones and Teeth 15
  • 2 The Origin and Early Evolution of Mammals 20
  • Synapsids (Protomammals or Stem Mammals) 20
  • Mammals in the Age of Dinosaurs 23
  • Morganucodonts 23
  • Docodonts 25
  • Monotremes (Platypus and Echidna) and Their Relatives 27
  • Multituberculates 30
  • Triconodonts 31
  • Theria 34
  • 3 Marsupials: Pouched Mammals 37
  • Marsupial vs Placental 37
  • Marsupial Evolution 38
  • Ameridelphia 39
  • Australiadelphia 41
  • 4 Placental Mammals (Eutheria) 47
  • The Interrelationships of Placentals 50
  • 5 Xenarthra: Sloths, Anteaters, and Armadillos 51
  • Edentate vs Xenarthran 51
  • Order Cingulata (Armadillos) 53
  • Order Pilosa (Anteaters and Sloths) 55
  • 6 Afrotheria: Elephants, Hyraxes, Sea Cows, Aardvarks, and Their Relatives 58
  • Tethytheres and Afrotheres 58
  • Order Proboscidea (Elephants, Mammoths, Mastodonts, and Their Relatives) 60
  • Order Sirenia (Manatees and Dugongs, or Sea Cows) 67
  • Order Embrithopoda (Arsinoitheres) 72
  • Order Desmostylia (Desmostylians) 73
  • Order Hyracoidea (Hyraxes) 75
  • Order Tubulidentata (Aardvarks) 77
  • Order Macroscelidia (Elephant Shrews) 78
  • Order Afrosoricida 79
  • 7 Euarchontoglires: Euarchonta Primates, Tree Shrews, and Colugos 80
  • Archontans 80
  • Order Scandentia (Tree Shrews) 82
  • Order Dermoptera (Colugos, or Flying Lemurs) 82
  • Order Plesiadapiformes (Plesiadapids) 84
  • Order Primates (Euprimates) 86
  • 8 Euarchontoglires: Glires Rodents and Lagomorphs 94
  • Chisel Teeth 94
  • Order Rodentia (Rodents) 95
  • Order Lagomorpha (Rabbits, Hares, and Pikas) 101
  • 9 Laurasiatheria: Insectivores Order Eulipotyphla and Other Insectivorous Mammals 103
  • Order Eulipotyphla 103
  • Extinct Insectivorous Groups 107
  • 10 Laurasiatheria: Chiroptera Bats 112
  • Bat Origins 114
  • 11 Laurasiatheria: Pholidota Pangolins, or Scaly Anteaters 117
  • Order Pholidota (Pangolins) 118
  • Palaeanodonts 120
  • 12 Laurasiatheria: Carnivora and Creodonta Predatory Mammals 122
  • Carnivores, Carnivorans, and Creodonts 122
  • Order Creodonta 124
  • Order Carnivora 127
  • 13 Laurasiatheria: Ungulata Hoofed Mammals and Their Relatives 146
  • Condylarths 147
  • 14 Laurasiatheria: Artiodactyla Even-Toed Hoofed Mammals: Pigs, Hippos, Whales, Camels, Ruminants, and Their Extinct Relatives 151
  • Artiodactyl Origins 153
  • Suoid Artiodactyls 154
  • Whippomorpha 160
  • Tylopods 169
  • Ruminantia 175
  • 15 Laurasiatheria: Perissodactyla Odd-Toed Hoofed Mammals: Horses, Rhinos, Tapirs, and Their Extinct Relatives 186
  • Equoids 187
  • Tapiroids 191
  • Rhinocerotoids 196
  • Brontotheres, or Titanotheres 199
  • 16 Laurasiatheria: Meridiungulata South American Hoofed Mammals 203
  • Order Notoungulata (Southern Ungulates) 205
  • Order Pyrotheria (Fire Beasts) 206
  • Order Astrapotheria (Lightning Beasts) 207
  • Order Litopterna (Litopterns, or Smooth Heels) 207
  • 17 Uintatheres, Pantodonts, Taeniodonts, and Tillodonts 209
  • Order Dinocerata (Uintatheres) 209
  • Order Pantodonta (Pantodonts) 212
  • Order Taeniodonta (Taeniodonts) 214
  • Order Tillodontia (Tillodonts) 216
  • 18 Mammalian Evolution and Extinction 218
  • Why Were Prehistoric Mammals So Big? 218
  • Where Have All the Megamammals Gone? 219
  • How Did Mammals Diversify after the Dinosaurs Vanished? 222
  • What about Mass Extinctions? 228
  • The Future of Mammals 229
  • Illustration Credits 231
  • Further Reading 232
  • Index (with Pronunciation Guide for Taxonomic Names) 234
  • 23,000 Dead In The US Per Year

    Ever year about 23,000 people die of infections from antibiotic resistant bacterial.

    Here is a film of bacteria evolving from regular old bacteria into killer superbugs. On a coffee table size Petri dish.

    You can get the story at NPR, where you will learn that

    “Getting more people to understand how quickly bacteria evolve antibiotic resistance might help people understand why they shouldn’t be prescribed antibiotics. The drug resistance is not some abstract threat. It’s real.”

    Venomous: How the Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry

    You can read this book review, or you can just go HERE and listen to our interview with author Christie Wilcox. I promise you in advance that you will want to read her book!

    But, if you want to read the book review, here it is…

    Did you ever do anything that hurt, then you had to do it again and you knew it would still hurt, and you didn’t like that? Like getting your teeth cleaned, or licking a nine volt battery. OK, maybe you didn’t have to lick the nine volt battery, but you get my point.

    When I was working in the Ituri Forest, in the Congo, taking a walk in the forest was one of those things. All sorts of things hurt. Your feet hurt because of jungle rot combined with sandy gritty stuff permanently indurated in your shoes. The leaves and branches you would have to move through hurt because it was early in the morning and they were cold and wet. And so on.

    But one of the things that was not inevitable, but nearly daily, was being stung by a venomous beast of some kind. The most serious threat, of course, was snakes but that never happened to me. Much more common, but more common a night, was to be bitten or stung by a venomous ant. But that only happened, maybe, once a week or so. But nearly every day, if I would walk far enough in the forest (hundreds of meters) especially early in the morning, would be the venomous caterpillars.

    Cute little caterpillars with some extra long furry thingies sticking out of them. When you brush against them, there is instant local pain, a bit like a bee sting (but different) followed quickly by shooting pains from the site of contact to the nearest major lymph node (usually the arm pit), followed by pain in the lymph node. The pain would eventually go away, after minutes, sometimes a bit longer. Most gentile urbane suburban or urban dwelling Americans and Europeans can go for years between envenomations. But if you are a human, or some other creature, living in certain environments, the risk of envenomation is not only constant, but the actual smaller scale, not deadly, envenomation events are a regular occurrence, and the threat of The Big One (such as a Black Mamba bite or a Cobra strike) is always there.

    In Venomous: How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry, Chritie Wilcox explains why this is important. We tend to think of the interaction between animals, within or between species — those interactions that have to do with sexual competition, feeding, or predator avoidance — as involving tooth, nail, squiggly appendages, and all that. But these interactions also involve, very often, some sort of envenomation. Also, using venom isn’t always about stinging, paralyzing, or killing. Mosquitos use venom to make blood sucking possible, as the chemicals used to stop their host from feeling the bite, and to make it easier to suck the blood, etc., are venoms. Indeed, the parasites we know to be so commonly associated with mosquitos get into the host by hanging out with the venom, free riding with the injected biochemicals.

    So, the evolution and diversification of venom and strategies of attack or defense, and other things, associated with venom co-evolved with anti-strategies to avoid the pain, paralysis, to avoid the bite or sting or brush of the venomous hair of the caterpillar. Indeed, understanding the evolutionary history and patterns of adaptation associated with the use of venom is just as good as any syndrome of interaction or behavior for the study of how evolution itself works.

    Christie Wilcox’s book is one of the better science books I’ve read in some time. This is an area I should know something about, as a biological scientist, and as a person who has lived for years in the venom-rich rain forest. But I still found myself learning something new with every page turn. Wilcox has studied venom for years — this is her area of specialty — and her text is enriched with well placed and well told stories of her own sometimes harrowing experiences.

    The book is very well written and very well documented with copious notes.

    A fascinating subtext has to do with human evolution and experience. There is a theory that primates generally are tuned to venomous creatures, especially snakes, and some of the key primate evolutionary adaptations are shaped by the experience of living in trees where large venomous snakes hunt. In the present day, there is what looks to me almost like a cult of self envenomation, found among people who keep venomous snakes (mainly), who inject themselves with venom regularly in order to stay, maybe, immune in case of an accidental bite. But they seem to be doing something more than this, almost using the venom as a sort of drug or, fascinatingly, as an elixir to extend life. On top of this, there is even an expanding practice of using snake bites, or ingesting the powdered form of snake venom, as a recreational drug. This set of not too unrelated human stories sits intriguingly amid myriad stories of venom use among a wide range of animals, including several mammals, fish, cone snails, snakes and lizards, etc.

    I get the impression that bad scientific knowledge (generally older), folk stories, and meemish yammering about venom is among the most widespread form of falsehood in our parascientific discourse. As I read this book, I remembered may instances of hearing or reading this or that thing about this or that venomous animal, or category of animal, that turned out wrong as more recent science exposed what was really happening. For many years, scientists were not sure if the platypus was venomous (it is) or why (it is all about sex for them). How does the Komodo Dragon kill large prey such as the Water Buffalo? If you look it up, you may find out that the Komodo Dragon maintains a bacterial flora in its mouth that causes necrosis in a bite victim. That is not true. Read Christie Wilcox’s book to find out the real story! And so on.

    Venomous: How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry is out in August, but available for pre order.

    Mike Haubrich and I interviewed Christie on the Ikonokast podcast, and it turns out to have been a fantastic interview. Listen to it here!

    Christie Wilcox blogs at Science Sushi.

    How the Venus Flytrap Evolved

    The trick to understanding evolution is less about finding good answer to questions, but rather, finding good questions to answer.

    Read that sentence twice, because it is very important.

    Years ago, Niko Tinbergen developed a method of formulating questions about biology. I’m pretty sure the Tinbergenian method has not been integrated into most science standards and teaching curriculum. It should be.

    There are four types of questions one could formulate about a biological system, trait, or observation.

    1) Mechanistic. How does this thing work? What cellular processes are involved in a metabolic process, or how do the lever forces work in a joint, or how does a heterotroph get some food into its gut.

    2) Ontogenetic. Given the various parts of an organism, how did they arise initially during development? Thinking only of multi-celled animals for a moment, all animals can be divided into large categories that have a common body plan, and that body plan is easily seen in the embryonic state. Looking at a fully formed adult, at any particular organ or part of an organ, we can ask, how did this thing form during the process of differentiating this particular taxonomic category? For example, mammalian pituitary glands are a combination of a bit of what would otherwise be brain, and a bit of what otherwise would be the roof of the mouth. This helps make sense of the pituitary gland.

    3) Phylogenetic. How is a particular feature of an organism potentiated or constrained, in its development or function, by ancestry? Birds have either two or four wings (the four winged birds are all extinct). Birds with two wings have two legs. Why not have two legs, two arms, and two wings? Because birds evolve within a taxonomic group that have four limbs, so wings are modified versions of those limbs.

    4) Functional. Sometimes called “ultimate” this category of question is largely (but not entirely) about natural selection. What is it about this trait, or this particular form of this train in this species (or sex of a given species) that enhances fitness. This is about the aspect of the trait that presumably caused the trait to spread and become typical, or that caused a particular population (the population with this specific trait) to become more representative over time, due to selection.

    A simpler version of this divides all features into two categories, “proximate” and “ultimate.” The proximate stuff is the immediate description, what it looks like, how it works, etc. The “ultimate” bit is the functional question (number 4 above). I prefer to keep the four categories in mind.

    By the way, there is a thing I call Greg’s Rule of Tinbergenian Inquisition (GROTI). This is not a hard and fast rule of nature or logic, but just a common occurrence. If you consider all four Tinbergenian questions in relation to a given trait, one of the four questions will produce a boring answer or a tautology. There are probably deep underlying philosophically interesting reasons for this, but the rule is more important as a guide to teachers. If you want to teach the Tinbergenian method of asking questions about evolution, by example, you will probably need to come up with two or more examples in order to not have one of the four approaches look silly. But I digress.

    You want to know how the Venus Flytrap evolved, and some recent research sheds some light on this by looking at the ontogenetic and phyogenetic aspects of known traits.

    Venus flytraps are plants that capture and then digest insects (or other small critters). The ultimate reason they do this may have to do with nutrients. Capturing and absorbing the tissues of insects provides nitrogen and some other often rare nutrients. So, the adaptation is to nutrient poor environments. One might guess that this is a trait that was selected for in nutrient poor environments, or one might guess that it is a trait that emerged largely by accident and then allows plants that do this to do better in nutrient poor environments. Or, one might not be too concerned by this distinction and guess that both features of the emergence of a trait are likely to be involved in the evolutionary history of a particular species and its adaptations. But, again, I digress.

    So, the Venus flytrap has sensors on it that tell the plant that there is prey present. Then it snaps shut (that is the coolest ting about the plant, but we’re not actually going to go into that here). Then a liquid engulfs the prey and digestion happens, then a different liquid is exuded and this facilitates the transport of nutrients into the plant.

    Now, think about plants, generally. Plants have all sorts of chemicals in them, or on them, that do all sorts of things. Is there anything about plants in general, about what they normally do, that could provide the genetic (and therefore metabolic or processual) basis for any of these things?

    Yes.

    Plants have hairs on the that detect the presence of possible herbivores.

    Herbivores may use certain chemicals to break down plant tissue, for ingestion and digestion.

    Plants have evolved chemicals that break down those chemicals.

    The chemicals that counteract the breakdown of plant tissues probably scare off herbivores, or limit their success, but the can also break down some of the molecules that herbivores are made of.

    Meanwhile, plants have genes that are expressed in roots that produce chemicals that facilitate the transport of nutrients from the roots into the rest of the plant.

    So, from a recent write-up in Science:

    To catch an invertebrate that has blundered into its snare, the flytrap relies on an ancient alarm system. It starts ringing when the victim jostles trigger hairs. The hairs in turn generate electrical impulses that somehow stimulate glands in the trap to produce jasmonic acid—the same signal that noncarnivorous plants use to initiate defensive action against herbivores. Patterns of gene expression in the two kinds of plants confirm the similarity…

    …In noncarnivorous plants, jasmonic acid triggers the synthesis of self-defense toxins and molecules that inhibit hydrolases, enzymes that herbivores secrete to break down the plant’s proteins. As part of their counterattack, plants also produce their own hydrolases, which can destroy chitin and other components of insects or microbes. In the flytrap, … [t]ens of thousands of tiny glands make and secrete hydrolases. The trapped invertebrate is drenched in the same digestive enzymes that another plant might use in smaller quantities to ward off an enemy….

    Then, plant genes code for chemicals that help absorb the nutrients from the insect.

    Experiments showed that many of these genes are the same ones expressed in the roots of other plants. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Yes, it’s a root,’” Hedrich says. “It made immediate sense,” because the flytrap draws its nutrition not from soil, but from its prey.

    We now have a phylogenetic look at a large part of the Venus flytrap’s unique insectivores adaptation. As is generally the case, these novel adaptations are reworkings of pre-existing adaptations.

    And, ontogenetic questions arise (but are not directly addressed by this research). How did the genes and their products normally found in roots get into the “stomach” thingie of the flytrap? Did the site of differentiation of root structures move to elsewhere in the plant, or is it just the genes being expressed in different cells? This question came to my mind reading this story, but I’m more of an animal guy than a plant guy. Animals have homeobox genes that control the overall differentiation of tissues, and stem cells that determine and limit, at various levels, what the possible cell types are in a give part of the developing animal. Plants are different. This is one of the reasons that plants can propagate vegetatively and few animals do anything similar.

    So I asked Dr. Rainer Hedrich, the flytrap guy who produced, with his team, this research, if this was a case of the movement of root tissue into the business end of the flytrap, or, alternatively, the expression of genes in tissue that are not normally expressed there in a plant.

    He told me, “The flytrap develops from tips of Dionaea leaves. So, the trap is a leaf on one side. The inner surface of the trap is covered by a turf of glands, and these glands express genes one otherwise finds in roots. So, the trap is a leaf with root function. Most likely, to serve carnivory, Dionea modified a transcription foactor or promoter of root genes and so directed them into the glands.”

    So, the story remains one of phylogeny, not ontogeny. The ontogeny part of the story is uninteresting, but the funcitonal, phyogenetic, and mechanistic parts of the story are fascinating.


    The paper:

    Venus flytrap carnivorous lifestyle builds on herbivore defense strategies. Felix Bemm, Dirk Becker, Christina Larisch, Ines Kreuzer, Maria Escalante-Perez, Waltraud X. Schulze, Markus Ankenbrand, Anna-Lena Van de Weyer, Elzbieta Krol, Khaled A. Al-Rasheid, Axel Mithöfer, Andreas P. Weber, Jörg Schultz, and Rainer Hedrich. Genome Res. Published in Advance May 4, 2016, doi:10.1101/gr.202200.115

    Graphic at the top of the post from here. Caption: Venus flytrap with its turf of glands and some gland complexes under the microscope – color enhanced transmission electron micrograph (TEM). B) Cross section of a gland complex showing the three characteristic cell types (Picture: Dirk Becker, Sönke Scherzer, Christina Larisch)

    Why I would believe in God if I wasn’t an atheist.

    I have often made the argument that religiosity, a personal belief in god, spirits, the supernatural, etc., would emerge in human societies on its own if it wasn’t there already.

    Imagine taking an entire generation of people in a geographically isolated region, and wiping out their memory of religion, and also, removing all references to religion that they might ever encounter. They would be religion free for a while, maybe even for a number of generations, but eventually, they would reinvent it.

    Everybody has a theory of why religion exists, what purposes it serves, etc. etc. Until proven otherwise, I will assume that these “functions” are all post hoc. Religion may serve one or another role in a given society or culture, but I’m going to assume that religion was incorporated for this purpose after the fact, not developed, evolved, or inserted for this purpose. I may be wrong, but until I see compelling evidence to the contrary, I think it is the safest assumption.

    Why would religion (using that term very loosely) emerge in a non-religious human society? Because of lawnmowers and dogs, or dreams or delusion, mainly.

    One day I was driving down the street and I witnessed a dog transform into a law mower. How could that happen if there was no spirit like force beyond some kind of veil that usually clouds our perceptions, hiding from us things that defy physics most, but not all, of the time? The only way to explain this is to invoke some sort of religious thinking, right?

    Here’s what happened. It was a bright sunny fall day. Warm. It was a densely populated residential neighborhood. Families were out, parents raking leaves and the kids jumping in them, dogs running around, children playing ball. I was unsure of where I was or where I was going (I was not familiar with the neighborhood), scanning back and forth for street signs and house numbers. The sun was low enough to be causing a lot of glare. So, I was paying a lot of attention to my peripheral vision (looking for a kid running into the street, or a dog not seeing me coming). Off to my left, I saw a large dog sitting on a lawn. I glanced to the right, then back to the left, and now saw that the dog was a lawn mower with someone’s coat draped over the handle. Miraculous transformation of a spirt being!

    Or, a simple mistake.

    And that, of course, is how I would actually explain what I say … a trick of the lousy light in a confused tapestry of activity that I was not initially paying much attention to.

    We experience things in real life that can’t be true, now and then. We usually but not always explain them, but sometimes we explain them with “I don’t know what that was, but it is not important… just a trick of the light.” But say I was a young and impressionable youth searching for meaning in life, and I had just seen a talk given by a spiritualist who claimed that spirit dogs occasionally appeared out of nowhere, transforming from inanimate objects into a large dog, then back again. Well, if that has been the case that day, perhaps I would have started worshiping spirt dogs, and I would never look at a lawn mower quite the same way again. If the spirit dog belief was a growing belief in my subculture, a belief held by community leaders, respected individuals, potential mates, and family members, I might be even more likely to break that way. And so on. You get the point.

    The current National Geographic Roundtable asks the question, “Is belief in God innate in our brains, as if it were installed by some divine programmer? Or is spirituality a more complex evolving adaptation that has both helped and harmed us as a species?”

    Neither, as stated. It is not innate in our species, as people usually understand the term — coded for by genes, the inevitable outcome of typical development. But I said it would always emerge in human societies, right? Yes, but not because it is innate (built in) but because the process of human behavior in the context of our physical world and culture would prod and poke and hint and push until it started to emerge here and there, and eventually, it would become part of the larger system of behavior. And no, of course, a tendency to eventually develop religion in a society was not put there by a divine programmer, any more than a paisley tea pot was set into orbit around the Planet Jupiter by a mischievous flying unicorn.

    Yes, religion, spirituality, and all that, is a complex changing thing that may have helped and may have harmed. But is it an adaptation? No. It is a side effect.

    That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. But to get a different set of perspectives, check out The God Brain, which premiers Feb 21st at 9PM Eastern on National Geographic.

    Host Jason Silva travels to Jerusalem, Israel, to explore, “The God Brain.” Fascinating new research has uncovered the possibility that believing in God may be hardwired in our brains. Is this because a divine power greater than us installed this software? Or is it possible that the believing part of the brain has evolved over thousands of years as an evolutionary adaptation that helps us succeed as a species. Physician and neuroscientist Andrew Newberg of Jefferson University Hospital has spent decades exploring the neurophysiology of religious and spiritual practice. Dr. Trevor Cox from the University of Salford, an expert on sound perception, explains how you respond to different musical keys and music played in churches. Dr. Jennifer Whitson of UCLA focuses on the psychological experience of control and sheds light on how to make sense of the environment and inexplicable events. Dr. Bruce Hood, an experimental psychologist at the University of Bristol, will demonstrate that even the most nonbelieving brain can have unconscious biases, which are fundamental characteristics for supernatural thinking.

    The Story Of Life in 25 Fossils by Don Prothero: Review

    This is a review of The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution.

    Don Prothero
    Don Prothero
    Fossils are cool. Why? Two very big and complex reasons. First, fossils allow us to reconstruct species that don’t exist any more. This is usually done by studying species that do exist, and using the information we glean from living things to interpret the details of the fossil species, giving it life. Second, fossils tell us about evolutionary change, both by showing us what evolutionary events happened that we would not be able to see in living species, and by showing us change. In order to understand the evolutionary history of life on our planet, we need to look at a lot of different fossil species, to develop histories of change and adaptation.

    (OK, there may be more than two reasons fossils are cool. Feel free to add your fossil are cool ideas in the comments section below. Please to not say “to grind them up to make aphrodisiacs.”)

    So, what if you had to describe the history of life by focusing on a small number of fossils? And, why would you do that? Last year, Paul Taylor and Aaron O’Dea did this with 100 fossils in A History of Life in 100 Fossils. I’ve looked through that book, and it is nice. But here I’m going to review a somewhat more recent book, just out, by Don Prothero, which has at least as much information in it but by focusing on a smaller number of cases: The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution.

    Several of the fossils Prothero chose to illustrate the story of life represent major events or changes in the planet’s evolutionary history and diversification. For example, the nature of the earliest life forms is represented by the stramotlite, which is really fossil scum. Others illustrate key transitions within major groups such as the origin of hard body parts, or the major divisions of animals, such as the origin of the amphibians. Others are exemplars chosen because they are spectacular and/or because they are touchstones to understanding very different times in the past, or important categories of living and extinct forms. These examples include the extremes, as well as good exemplars of the “diversity in adaptations to size, ecological niche, and habitat.” Generally, the chosen representatives are fossils with good preservation, detailed study, and in general, piles of information.

    Prothero also provides rich detail about discovery, early interpretations, and the role of specific fossils (or extinct species) in the history of thought about evolution. In some ways this may be the most interesting parts of the discussion of several of the fossils. And, the book is chock full of excellent and interesting illustrations.

    Lester Park Stromatolite. (Photograph by G. Laden.)
    Lester Park Stromatolite. (Photograph by G. Laden.)
    As a result, the chosen 25 are somewhat biased towards the more spectacular, and intentionally, towards those extinct forms that people tend to gravitate towards because they are either very interesting or very spectacular (generally, both). It would probably be difficult to develop a panoply of species that ignore the dinosaurs, but the history of life on Earth could probably have been written without humans, as long as “providing a viable existential threat to all known life forms” was not on your list of key attributes to do cover, but Prothero takes on human ancestors, and covers more than one, because most of the book’s readers are likely to be humans.

    There are far more than 25 life forms in The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution, because the author makes use of a much richer body of information than just the key chapter-titling form.

    Also, Prothero is a world renowned expert on certain fossil groups, found among the mammals. Well, actually, a lot of fossil groups. And, his expertise is applied richly here, with the selection of a disproportionate share of mammals.

    The author writes excellent, readable prose, and vigorously makes connections between evolutionary questions and evolutionary data. It is hard to say if this book supplants or enhances his earlier major monograph for the public on evolution, Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. Either way, you can safely assume the more recent volume is more up to date in areas where research has been active.

    I’m thinking of getting a copy of this book for the local school’s library, as a gift.


    A selection of other books by Donald Prothero:

    Books On Fossils and Evolution

    Over the last several months, a lot of great books on fossils and evolution (as in paleontology) have come out. I’ve selected the best for your consideration. These are great gifts for your favorite science-loving nephew, life science teaching cousin, or local school library. Actually, you might like some of these yourself.

    grandmother_fishLet’s start off with a kid’s book: Grandmother Fish: a child’s first book of Evolution by Jonathan Tweet.

    From the blurb:

    Grandmother Fish is the first book to teach evolution to preschoolers. While listening to the story, the child mimics the motions and sounds of our ancestors, such as wiggling like a fish or hooting like an ape. Like magic, evolution becomes fun, accessible, and personal. Grandmother Fish will be a full-size (10 x 8), full-color, 32-page, hardback book full of appealing animal illustrations, perfect for your bookshelf. US publishers consider evolution to be too “hot” a topic for children, but with your help we can make this book happen ourselves.

    I reviewed the book here before it first came out. This was a kickstarter project, and it may be currently unavailable commercially, but if you click through to the kickstarter project you can probably get a copy of it.

    Donald+Prothero+Story+of+Life+in+25+FossilsThe most recent book to come across my desk is Don Prothero’s The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution. I’ve got a review of Prothero’s book in my draft file, so look for that post coming out over the next few days.

    One might ask, “how do you choose 25 fossils, among so many choices, to represent evolution?” Well, Don cheated a little by mentioning more than 25 fossils. Also, you really can’t do this. Don selected fossils using several criteria, but one basis for his choice was the availability of rich historical information about a fossil’s discovery, interpretation, and effect on our thinking about evolution. And, he covers all of that.

    Don is one of those rare authors who is both an expert scientist and a great writer, with a proven ability to explain things in a way that is not watered down yet totally accessible.

    Here’s a selection of the many other books written by Prothero:

    EvolutionTheWholeStoryParker41N2zRnkbuL._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_ (1)Evolution: The Whole Story is an astonishing book that needs to be on the bookshelf of anyone interested in evolution. The work is edied by Steve Parker, but authored by nearly a dozen experts in various subfields of fossils and evolution, so it is authoritative and scholarly. At the same time, it is very accessible and enjoyable. This is not a book you read from cover to cover, though you could. Feel free to skip around, and you;ll find yourself looking stuff up all the time.

    The book is divided into major sections, and each section has a series of short pieces on this or that fossil, group of fossils, type of life system, method for studying fossils, etc. There is a running sidebar on the bottom of many pages giving “key events” in evolutionary history of the group of life forms under consideration The book is VERY richly illustrated, with detailed keys to the illustrations. Many of the illustrations are broken down into “focal points” that expand significantly on the illustrations’ details. There are countless additional inserts with more information. The book itself is beautiful, intriguingly organized, and it is full of … well, everything. The book is very well indexed and sourced, and has helpful, up to date, phylogenies and chronological graphics.

    TheBiologyBookGeraldThe Biology Book: From the Origin of Life to Epigenetics, 250 Milestones in the History of Biology (Sterling Milestones) by Michael Gerald and Gloria Gerald is a compendium of biological topics and key moments in the history of biological science, organized in a sort of chronological framework. Major groups (the insects, the amphibians), major ideas (Pliny’s Natural History, Ongogeny and Phylogeny), key physiological and developmental concepts (meiosis, mitosis, many topics in endocrinology), key fossils (like the Coelocanth) and so on are discussed, very nicely illustrated. This is almost like having a gazillian short articles from Natural History Magazine (or similar) all in one book. There are 250 biological “milestones” in all. The charming part of the book is that a milestone can be an evolutionary event, an extinction episode, the emergence of a great idea, or a particular discover. And, as noted, these are ordered across time, as well as one can, from the beginning of life to a selection of the most recent discovery. The book effectively combines history of biology (and related sciences) and the biological history itself.

    lifes_gretest_secret_dna_cobb511J4iZIbrL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code by the well respected scientist and historian Matthew Cobb is a carefully and clearly written history of the discovery of the nature of DNA, covering a lot more than, and since, Watson and Crick. It is extremely well sourced, indexed, and supported, and very readable.

    This is the detailed and authoritative work on all the elements that came together to understand the genetic code. Don’t talk about the discovery and understanding of DNA any more until you’ve read this book. From the publisher:

    Life’s Greatest Secret mixes remarkable insights, theoretical dead-ends, and ingenious experiments with the swift pace of a thriller. From New York to Paris, Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Cambridge, England, and London to Moscow, the greatest discovery of twentieth-century biology was truly a global feat. Biologist and historian of science Matthew Cobb gives the full and rich account of the cooperation and competition between the eccentric characters—mathematicians, physicists, information theorists, and biologists—who contributed to this revolutionary new science. And, while every new discovery was a leap forward for science, Cobb shows how every new answer inevitably led to new questions that were at least as difficult to answer: just ask anyone who had hoped that the successful completion of the Human Genome Project was going to truly yield the book of life, or that a better understanding of epigenetics or “junk DNA” was going to be the final piece of the puzzle. But the setbacks and unexpected discoveries are what make the science exciting, and it is Matthew Cobb’s telling that makes them worth reading. This is a riveting story of humans exploring what it is that makes us human and how the world works, and it is essential reading for anyone who’d like to explore those questions for themselves.

    EldridgeEvolutionExtinctionExtinction and Evolution: What Fossils Reveal About the History of Life is a an updated version of a classic book about evolution and extinction written by one of the scientists who developed our modern way of thinking about evolution and extinction (especially the extinction part).

    Eldredge’s groundbreaking work is now accepted as the definitive statement of how life as we know it evolved on Earth. This book chronicles how Eldredge made his discoveries and traces the history of life through the lenses of paleontology, geology, ecology, anthropology, biology, genetics, zoology, mammalogy, herpetology, entomology and botany. While rigorously accurate, the text is accessible, engaging and free of jargon.

    Honorable Mentions: Older books that are great and may now be avaialable for much reduced prices.

    I really liked The Great Transition: Shifting from Fossil Fuels to Solar and Wind Energy as an expose of a particular time period and major event in geological history. Greenhouse of the Dinosaurs: Evolution, Extinction, and the Future of Our Planet by Prothero is a classic, again, looking at a fairly narrowly defined moment in prehistory. You can get it used for about five bucks.

    The Fossil Chronicles: How Two Controversial Discoveries Changed Our View of Human Evolution by Dean Falk is a great book focusing on one key human fossil. This is a personal story as well as a scientific one. Again, available used for a song.

    Have you read Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body yet? I’m sure you’ve heard about it. It is still a great read, and you can get it used cheap.

    The only book I would recommend that uses the “paleolithic” to advise you on diet and exercise is The Paleolithic Prescription: A Program of Diet and Exercise and a Design for Living.

    Interesting Epigenetics Discussion

    At Science League of America, Stephanie Keep’s blog, “A Wrinkle In (Change Over) Time, Part 1:

    …there has recently been a bit of a wrinkle in this core tenet of evolution. It used to be that you could say with confidence that changes brought about by environmental influences over the course of an individual’s lifetime (loss of limb, build-up of muscle mass) are not heritable. But more and more examples of just that—of environmentally affected traits being passed from parent to offspring—have been recently reported in the scientific literature. Earlier this year, for example, Scientific American ran a piece by biologist Michael Skinner that described the phenomena he has studied since 2005. He recounts how mice exposed to a toxin produce male offspring with low sperm count and underdeveloped sex organs. No problem so far, the offspring were developing within the mother’s body and therefore also exposed. But Skinner’s team noted a disproportionate occurrence of these traits in the next two generations. There was no trace of the toxin in…

    Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 7.54.00 PM

    Interesting post, and interesting, lively discussion.

    Ebola Will Not Become Airborne And Here Is Why

    This discussion has been going on for some time, and a handful of recent events have prompted me to jump into it (beyond a simple comment or two). First, I saw a bunch of yammering among various biology teachers about this topic. Then Michael Osterholm wrote a well intentioned but seemingly deeply flawed opinion at the New York Times, then Dina Fine Maron wrote an excellent piece at Scientific American deconstructing Osterholm’s piece, then the latter two (and more) were summarized and expanded on in a post by Ann Reid at the NCSE.

    Here, I will expand on this by applying first principles from evolutionary theory, organizing our thoughts in Tinbergenesque Terms.

    There are four categories of reasons that Ebola won’t go airborne. I’m going farther out on a limb here than most others, who say things like “it is possible, but…” Imma say it just isn’t going to happen. Technically, over time, the Sus lineage of mammals (pigs) could give rise to a flying form, like what happened with some earlier lineage of mammal that gave rise to bats. So what I’m really saying is that Ebola will go airborne when pigs fly. Both are possible. But if that is what you really think of as “possible” instead of just “no, it won’t happen” than you may need to calibrate and stop buying those lottery tickets!

    Here is why Ebola won’t go airborne.

    First, diseases in general, including viruses, do change which species they infect sometimes, and they change in virulence and the exact effects on the host, but they really don’t change their mode of transmission. At the largest evolutionary scale there have been some novelties, obviously (or there would be no variation!). I am pretty sure many of the influenza viruses are not transmitted through the air, but the only ones we bother to name and study do, and are a subset of a larger group that transmits via water. I may have that wrong (going on old personal communications here) but if I am wrong that just crosses off Influenza as a virus that changed mode of transmission. Ebola is in a large group of viruses that are actually found in plants. Obviously, there was a change in transmission at the origin of Ebola. But really, this does not happen very often. If you can think of examples please tell me. (For a non virus example, Malaria is transmitted the same way all the time even if it changes (rarely) which species it affects or otherwise evolves like crazy to stay ahead of interventions.)

    In short, we expect strong phylogenetic inertia in mode of transmission.

    Second, there is no in place mechanism, probably. Ebola does not infect the tissues it would need to infect to make its way into a sneeze or cough. That would require a major change.

    Third, developmentally, the first step in a virus’s life cycle is getting itself into a cell. Airborne viruses need to have a key that matches a lock on the outside of respiratory tissues. So Ebola not only lacks the means for getting out through a sneeze or cough, it also lacks the ability to do much if it did.

    Fourth, it is not adaptive. Yes, a virus can mutate to do something stupid and maybe get a Darwin Award, but the chances are at least somewhat reduced. Ebola is very deadly in humans. Humans and the animal vectors that may stand between fruit bats (the likely wild host) and humans are not good hosts for Ebola. The chances of Ebola evolving to infect an unsuitable host are reduced.

    Phylogenetically unlikely, mechanistically unlikely, ontogenetically unlikely, adaptively unlikely. Evolution is like baseball but slightly different. Four Tinbergen Strikes and you are out.

    Now, the usual arguments in favor of Ebola doing the Hollywood thing rely on references to other viruses, like Influenza. Well, Influenza is way different from Ebola in its reproduction. It has a whole way of evolving that Ebola does not have. In fact, the differences is greater than, potentially (and rarely, but not never) the difference between evolution under sexual reproduction and evolution under simple replication. If two different Influenza strains infect the same cell, they can recombine (reassortment) to make an entirely novel never before seen Influenza. That is a very big deal and is thought to be the primary mechanism for the evolution of novel dangerous flu strains. Ebola does not do that. Ebola can’t do that.

    Ebola does not do that. That thing Influenza does.

    I said that twice. Now I’ll say it another way. Using Influenza evolution as a model for Ebola evolution is like using Primate Behavior as a model for Sea Slug Behavior. In other words, it does not fit.

    Will Ebola go airborne? No.

    ADDENDUM

    I’m adding a bit more because some are still missing the point. This is an analogy that I think might be helpful

    Cars fly, and airplanes drive around on the ground. Ebola can possibly be transmitted across space in a closed room from one person to another, and you can catch a flu by having someone with the flu bleed directly into your nose*.

    But really, airplanes are vehicles designed to fly, they only drive around on the ground a little. They have wings, special engines, an overall shape and design that is adapted to flight. But really, cars only fly into the air now and then, and it is generally an accident.

    An airborne virus replicates in high numbers in respiratory tissues, and causes the lysing (or some other process) of cells to allow itself out into mucous tissues. It is able to survive in mucous tissues, and then it is able to survive in aerosolized droplets. An aerosolized droplet is not a bit of bodily fluid cast into the air, it is not a drop of blood shed from a wound or bleeding eyeball, or a loogie. It is a bunch of liquid (mainly water) molecules coherent at a size sufficiently small that air currents are more important then gravity, so it becomes part of the atmosphere, and a virus may or may not be residing in it. Then, and airborne virus needs to have the external morphology that links up with a receptor site on respiratory cells in the individual subject to infection, and then, it reproduces mainly in that tissue.

    Ebola is none of these things, except possibly one. Ebola is known to survive in mucous tissue for some time after it has left an infected individual. This is not the same as surviving in an aerosolized droplet, but it indicates the possibility. But to go back to the car-airplane analogy, that is a bit like saying that some cars fly farther when they leave the road during an accident.

    The distinction is very important. Jane, commenter below, has oddly implied that I’m not taking Ebola seriously. I would like to point out that I may have been the only person to complain about and argue against the trope that Ebola is not so bad because it is not Malaria. I may also be one of the few bloggers writing about Ebola who has lived in Ebola country, doing health care work, and who has actually worked on the problem of the natural reservoir and contributed to it. I am also one of the few people writing now who has pointed out that even though most people with Ebola are in a few African countries, where this needs to be taken very seriously, that it is also true that those communities, in West Africa, are global. This is how my neighbor, Patrick, managed to die of Ebola. He was an American who also worked for the Liberian government, and was in Liberia taking care of his sister, who died of the disease. His wife and family are here, in my town. Ebola affects communities that are not separate from those who have the privilege of being able to muse about it. And here is where the distinction becomes multi-dimensional. All the talk about airborne transmission is not scientifically grounded, and it is a distraction. But saying that it will not become airborne is not saying that it is not a horrible disease that is highly infectious and has pandemic potential. This, the nuances of the epidemiology of Ebola, isn’t really that complex, but sadly, it is a bit too complex to be well managed by the press and others talking about it, in many cases.

    And, the distinction is huge. Conflating the very small number of possible infections “across the room” (which are speculative but possible) in prior outbreaks (which, Jane, were not in East Africa) with an airborne mode of transmission is like working out transportation policy for the US but mixing up the part about how cars don’t fly and airplanes do. I really think Ebola is not going to become airborne. But if it was airborne, the whole ballgame would be very very different. That, however, does not mean that Ebola is not a very serious thing that needs to be addressed. Also, the utter failure to address this by the systems in place tells us that we as a society/species/collection of governments are unable to address a serious public health crisis even if we were under the impression that we were. Trading in misinformation and badly conceived ideas of what is happening or what could happen sets us back, it does not move us forward.

    More on Ebola:


    *Actually, this may not be true, to my knowledge no one has considered this, certainly not tried it!

    Evolution Book For Young Children: Grandmother Fish

    In a previous life (of mine) my father-in-law, an evolutionary biologist, kept an oil painting of a fish on the wall of the living room. At every chance he would point out, to visitors or to anyone else if there were no visitors, that he kept a portrait of his distant ancestor hanging in a prominent location, pointing to the oil painting. It was funny even the third or fourth time. It isn’t really true, of course, that this was his ancestor. It was a bass, more recently evolved to its present form than humans, I suspect. But it is true that the last common ancestor of humans and fish was a lot more like a fish than like a human.

    I know it is hard to find good books about evolution for kids, and it is even harder to find a book for really young kids. A book needs to be written for the audience, engaging, entertaining, and all that — it needs to be a good book — before it can also teach something. A book that teaches but sucks as a book doesn’t really teach much.

    Recently, Jonathan Tweet of Seattle Washington sent me a draft of a book he was working on that is such a thing, a good book that teaches about evolution and targeted to young kids. He had sent the book around to a number of experts for two reasons. First, he wanted to make sure he wasn’t saying anything wrong vis-a-vis evolution. Second, he wanted to make sure he got his facts straight at another level so he could provide useful and accurate footnotes for the adults who might read the book for the kids. I had a comment or two, but really, he already had his ducks in a row and the book, with the notes, was in good shape. It had evolved, as a project, very nicely.

    The book is: Grandmother Fish: a child’s first book of evolution. From his blurb:

    Grandmother Fish is the first book to teach evolution to preschoolers. While listening to the story, the child mimics the motions and sounds of our ancestors, such as wiggling like a fish or hooting like an ape. Like magic, evolution becomes fun, accessible, and personal. Grandmother Fish will be a full-size (10 x 8), full-color, 32-page, hardback book full of appealing animal illustrations, perfect for your bookshelf. US publishers consider evolution to be too “hot” a topic for children, but with your help we can make this book happen ourselves.

    Jonathan made a kick-starter to raise 12,000 to produce the book. He’s already reached that goal and is now edging towards the stretch goal of $20K.

    You can visit the kickstarter site HERE. You can download an early draft of the book. Personally, I plan to make this a Christmas gift for several friends and relatives who have kids the right age, assuming it is available by then. You can also see a several videos by the author and illustrator.

    You can go to the Kickstarter site now and invest in any one of several different products that will be sent to you.

    You may know of Tweet’s other work on Dungeons & Dragons and similar projects.

    I recommend the book, strongly. Thank you for writing it, Jonathan.

    Bill Nye on the Inside Story of the Nye-Ham Debate

    You will recall that last February, Bill Nye, the Science Guy, debated Ken Ham, the Not-So-Science Guy, on the question of creationism as a viable explanation for the Earth’s history. The debate was held in Ham’s home territory, at the infamous Creation Museum in Kentucky. Nye didn’t really debate Ham. He ate him for breakfast. Form now on we shall call him Ken Bacon and Eggs.

    Anyway, people, including me, who have been engaged with the “debate” between science (evolution) and not-so-science (creationism of one kind or another) were very concerned when we heard that this debate might happen. There are reasons to not engage in such a debate. We worried. But then the debate happened and we saw the debate and the debate made us glad. Word.

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    Well, in May 2014, which as far as I can tell is in the future (Bill Nye has some amazing powers!) Bill Nye published an Article in the Center for Inquiry’s Skeptical Inquirer about the debate: Bill Nye’s Take on the Nye-Ham Debate. In it, Nye gives the story of how the debate came to be, what his concerns and hopes were, how he prepared, what happened during the debate, and the debate’s aftermath. I think Nye’s explanation for his decision to debate is very much worth a read and can be appreciated by anyone interested in this topic. His description of the debate itself is fascinating, as inside stories often are. Also of great interest are Nye’s comments on an aspect of this debate that concerned several people: The way in which the debate was used, or perhaps, was not used, as a means of fund raising. Nye opens up questions that he suggests may be best addressed by the community of journalists in Kentucky. Hopefully that will happen.

    I strongly recommend that you read Bill Nye’s essay. It is very interesting, and I very much appreciate his writing it.

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