The animated [and largely forgotten] life of A. R. Wallace (single-link NYTimes video)
Is it time to put natural selection in its place? Jello Biafra once famously wrote that "If evolution is outlawed, only outlaws will evolve." But while it likely comes as no surprise to specialists working in the field or to those who've been following developments in evolutionary biology closely, there's an emerging view among experts that Darwin's view of natural selection as the primary driver of speciation and evolutionary change may be incorrect or at least drastically overstated. It's long been understood that non-adaptive evolutionary mechanisms like "genetic drift" and random mutation also play non-trivial roles in evolutionary processes, but a recent study (link to abstract with full-text PDF available) casts new doubts on the primary role of natural selection, finding that "Neutral models, in which genetic change arises through random variation without fitness differences have proven remarkably successful in describing observed patterns of biodiversity." [more inside]
Even though you've heard of Darwin, it's quite possible that you're not familiar with Alfred Russel Wallace (previously), co-discoverer of the theory of evolution (a shame; in many respects he's the more interesting of the two!). Fortunately you can now learn more about the man through transcripts and scans of his letters with family and colleagues, which the UK Natural History Museum have just published online. [more inside]
Bees and a species of bird can solve the traveling salesman problem "It’s Saturday; you’ve got errands to run. Your spouse wants bread from the bakery, you need to pick up the dry cleaning, your kids need new shoes, and you’ve got a dentist appointment. None of this is any fun, so you might as well do it as quickly as possible by calculating the fastest and most efficient route that takes you to each stop... Menger and Whitney both discovered that the number of possible routes between stops increases exponentially with each additional destination. In a typical model, for instance, three stops yield six routes, while eight stops yield 40,320... By setting up five artificial flowers in a pentagon shape and tracking each bee’s path, researchers discovered that every bee optimized its route, visiting the highest-reward flowers in the shortest possible amount of time." [more inside]
The cosmos is also within us, we're made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos, to know itself.
Cosmos: A Personal Voyage is a thirteen-part television series of one hour shows written by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, and Steven Soter, that was aired at the tail end of 1980 and was - at the time - the most widely watched series in the history of American public television. It is best introduced by an audio excerpt of one of his books, The Pale Blue Dot. Inside is a complete annotated collection of the series. [more inside]
Steven Pinker on the "False Allure of Group Selection", with comments by Daniel Dannett, Stewart Brand, and others. Richard Dawkins's take on group selection. Jerry Coyne's take.
SXSW is winding down and there are winners! Skateboarding punks and crippling anxiety! But is winning worthwhile? What happened to these guys?
Misunderstanding Darwin: Natural selection’s secular critics get it wrong. Ned Block and Philip Kitcher review Jerry Fodor's (previously) and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini's book What Darwin Got Wrong. Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini respond: “Misunderstanding Darwin”: An Exchange.
One of the classic arguments against evolution by natural selection is "what good is half an X?" where X is an eye, a wing or some other complex body part or system. Directly responding to the implicit challenge some researchers have been not just figuring out how X could have evolved, but actually evolving new complex machines (previously). The basic ideas are so simple that web versions (explanation and discussion) have been popping up.
The "blind watchmaker" may not be as blind as we thought. A team of scientists at Princeton University discovers that organisms are not only evolving, they're evolving to evolve better, using a set of proteins to "steer the process of evolution toward improved fitness" by making tiny course corrections.
In the 1980s, Richard Lenski hypothesized that his research team should be able to watch random mutations and natural selection taking place in a lab by observing a bacteria population over many generations. In 1988, beginning with a single bacterium, he started several replicate colonies. Recently, after 33,127 generations, his team has observed natural selection.
Rutgers professor of philosophy Jerry Fodor created a bit of a stir last October when he wrote an article for the London Review of Books arguing that natural selection may not be such a great theory after all, and that a "major revision of evolutionary theory... is in the offing." Not many fellow philosophers and academics agree, it seems. Fodor responds to his critics here and here. Six months later, it's still not entirely clear whether his argument is, as Justin E.H. Smith put it, "irresponsible and stupid or so subtle that none of his adversaries, defending a status quo interpretation of the theory of natural selection, have been able to get it yet."
Natural selection and evolution in clocks(youtube) - Video of the details and results of a program written to model the evolution of clocks (if they were alive). [more inside]
Theory of history by Dr. Gregory Clark in his new book A Farewell to Alms 1. The English Industrial Revolution was caused by changes in the make-up and behavior of the population, which was caused by natural selection, influenced by cycles of Malthusian booms and busts between 1200 and 1800. The implications for modernizing other nations through institutions such as the World Bank are like " pre-scientific physicians who prescribed bloodletting for ailments they did not understand".
Intelligent Evolution...Today we live in a less barbaric age,[than the age of Copernicus and Bruno] but an otherwise comparable disjunction between science and religion, the one born of Darwinism, still roils the public mind. Why does such intense and pervasive resistance to evolution continue 150 years after the publication of The Origin of Species, and in the teeth of the overwhelming accumulated evidence favoring it? The answer is simply that the Darwinian revolution, even more than the Copernican revolution, challenges the prehistoric and still-regnant self-image of humanity. Evolution by natural selection, to be as concise as possible, has changed everything...
Evolutionary biologist Paul Ewald, author of The evolution of infectious disease and an expert on the development of pathogen virulence (see this, this and this for a good intro), responds to this editorial in Scientific American and pours cold water on fears of pandemic influenza.
Natural selection acts on the quantum world. "Objective reality may owe its existence to a 'darwinian' process that advertises certain quantum states."
Half Life 2 may be postponed, but there's something here to keep you going - Natural Selection. The site is currently sporting a spartan look because they just released a new version of this essential Half Life mod, which combines games such as Command and Conquer with that of action shooters. Visit The Ready Room for more info.
Fans of first-person shooter games are flocking to Natural Selection (review 1, review 2), the Marines vs Aliens modification that uses the engine of Half-Life. It is a stunning game and focuses greatly on cooperation with your team (it currently is only playable through network). The designers are still working out balancing the strengths and abilities between human and xenomorph but the anxiety of trying to defend the marine base while the mammoth-sized aliens are battering the door down is a delight to all of us who always wanted to be like Drake, Vasquez and Hicks (and Hudson). Download it here (reg req'd) and find games to join over at Gamespy (their Arcade download makes it super-easy). Note: you do need to have a retail version of Half-Life to play the game.
Blondes 'to die out in 200 years' . The last natural blondes will die out within 200 years, scientists believe. A study by experts in Germany suggests people with blonde hair are an endangered species and will become extinct by 2202.
[Insert blonde joke here]
[Insert blonde joke here]
New book claims the Peppered Moth, natural selection's poster boy, may be a fraud. In the 1970s, the American lepidopterist Ted Sargent highlighted serious problems with Kettlewell's experiment. But no one wanted to know: his research was ignored by the scientific community and his career stymied. The peppered moth experiment was "sacred"; critics were "demonised", their views dismissed as "heresy". But the evidence grew and in 1998 a prominent biologist, reviewing it in Nature , said his shock at the extent of the doubts was like discovering as a child "that it was my father and not Santa who brought the presents on Christmas eve".
Capitalism as a basis for natural selection? Third world countries are getting pasted because major pharmacutical companies won't cut their profit lines on HIV/AIDS fighting drugs. With infection rates verging on genocidal levels in Africa (with 62% of the world's infections), at what point does bottom line economics cross bottom line humanity? And does anyone else find it strange that a plague has teamed with profit margins to create a new paradigm for unnatural selection?