Caleb A. Scharf: The Urgency of Agency

Scientific American Blog Network:

I recently noticed something about myself. Whenever I am thinking about the nature of living systems (as happens a lot in the field of astrobiology), and reading or studying work done on evolutionary biology, I have to refresh my mind constantly about the central tenets of Darwinian selection. This is not because they are particularly complex. Indeed, their remarkable simplicity is what makes the ideas so powerful. Instead it is because of what my mind wants to do with these ideas.

Putting aside the specifics of phenomena like DNA and genetics, the most critical element of Darwinian evolution is that biological forms exist, species emerge, change, persist or go extinct, entirely because they can. In a purely probabilistic sense. We look around at the world and perhaps marvel at the exquisite adaptations of an organism, but in truth those adaptations are just the result of a very refined winnowing out of other experimental possibilities that don’t increase the probability of reproduction and survival in the same way. And it is almost certainly a temporary victory amidst the turbulence of change and interaction that life deals with every millisecond of every day.

Insightful article on our often misunderstandings of nature.

Lizzie Wade: Human-Driven Evolution


During World War II, Londoners often sought shelter from German bombs in the city’s subway tunnels. There, they encountered another type of enemy: hordes of voracious mosquitoes. These weren’t your typical above-ground mosquitoes. They were natives of the Underground, born in pools of standing water that pockmarked the underground passageways. And unlike their open-air cousins, London’s subterranean skeeters seemed to love biting humans.

Fifty years after the war ended, scientists at the University of London decided to investigate the subway population. They collected eggs and larvae from subway tunnels and garden ponds and reared both populations in the lab. The outdoor mosquitoes fed on birds, but the tunnel bugs preferred mammal blood. And when the scientists put males and females from the different populations into close quarters designed to encourage mating, not a single pairing produced offspring. That sealed the deal: the underground mosquitoes were a whole new species, adapted to life in the subway tunnels people had built.

It’s stories like this one that got Joseph Bull thinking. As a conservation scientist at the University of Copenhagen, he hears a lot about how humans are driving other species extinct. If the current rate stays steady, the planet is on its way to its sixth mass extinction, a severe event on par with the meteorite impact that killed the dinosaurs. But he wondered whether there might be a flip side. Certainly people’s planet-transforming activities had to be creating new species, too. But how, and how many? Bull decided to see whether he could count all the new species humans had created or were on their way to creating, in a sort of mirror-image of extinction rates and endangered species lists.

James J. Krupa: Teaching Evolution

James J. Krupa, writing for Slate:

melfoody, Flickr

melfoody, Flickr

We live in a nation where public acceptance of evolution is the second lowest of 34 developed countries, just ahead of Turkey. Roughly half of Americans reject some aspect of evolution, believe the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, and that humans coexisted with dinosaurs. Where I live, many believe evolution to be synonymous with atheism, and there are those who strongly feel I am teaching heresy to thousands of students. A local pastor, whom I’ve never met, wrote an article in the University Christian complaining that, not only was I teaching evolution and ignoring creationism, I was teaching it as a non-Christian, alternative religion.

There are students who enroll in my courses and already accept evolution. Although not yet particularly knowledgeable on the subject, they are eager to learn more. Then there are the students whose minds are already sealed shut to the possibility that evolution exists, but need to take my class to fulfill a college requirement. And then there are the students who have no opinion one way or the other but are open-minded. These are the students I most hope to reach by presenting them with convincing and overwhelming evidence without offending or alienating them.

"It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so." ― Charles F. Kettering

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” ― Daniel J. Boorstin

"The trouble with the world is not that people know too little, it’s that they know so many things that just aren't so."  Mark Twain (?)

"The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance - it is the illusion of knowledge." ― Daniel J. Boorstin 

Dunning–Kruger effect and We are All Confident Idiots