Fight back against junk food marketing


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Frugivoro: a board game about health foodMost people realize that our food is loaded with sugar and that our eating habits are unhealthy, but it’s very hard to change them. Rather than simply accepting the situtation or complaining about it, my sister-in-law and her mother decided to change it. Over the past several years, they’ve designed, tested, and refined a new board game, Frugivoro, that gets kids excited about healthy foods (and sneaks in some education, too!). Many of our eating habits form in childhood, so this is a create way to counter the deluge of junk food marketing kids are exposed to. Continue reading

The Origins of Ant Agriculture


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Fungus farm of a "primitive" farming ant, (c) Cauê Lopes. Ted Schultz, Smithsonian.Ants have been farming for far longer than humans have existed. They discovered fungus farming around fifty or sixty million years ago in the wet rainforests of South America, and have continued tending their underground fungus gardens through countless years as the planet changed and changed, and changed again. Much more recently — just a few years ago — I wrote about the fungus-farming ants (called “attine ants”), trying to imagine how they might view human agriculture. Our imaginary attine author closed with the hope that studying humans might help the attines understand their own history, “such as how the transition from primitive to advanced agriculture occured in our own ancestors”, and now a study by a group of humans has shed light on that very question. Continue reading

Book Review: Born Anxious


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I enjoyed Born Anxious more than I expected to but less than I hoped. Written by Daniel Keating, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, it synthesizes over a decade of research on how stress affects the course of our lives. Keating presents an interesting and convincing case that experiences early in life — or even in previous generations — can set biological switches that have wide-ranging consequences, affecting health, social well-being, and professional success. Continue reading

Back at last!

After a longer-than-intended hiatus, Inspiring Science is back! I’m sorry for disappearing without explanation or announcement and for staying away for so long. Truth be told, I didn’t decide to put the blog on pause until I realized that it had already happened. I don’t yet know how often I’ll be posting — I guess that’s something I’ll figure out n the coming weeks — but I’ll do my best to post regularly.

I’ll start with a book review today, and I’ve already got a couple of other posts planned, one about ants farming and another about evolution and neural networks. I hope some of my (former) regular readers will return and more people will join us. Say  hi in the comments, and feel free to let me know if there’s a subject you’d like me to write about!

The Social Evolution Forum


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I’m very pleased to be part of the Evolution Institute‘s new group blog, The Social Evolution Forum. SEF brings together a range of writers concerned with evolution in a broad sense, from ecology to cultural evolution. To get an idea of what SEF is about, have a look at DS Wilson’s announcement post.

My first post is on a pernicious and persistent misunderstanding of evolution: the myth of progress.

Evolutionary theory is extremely powerful and pervasively misunderstood. Stripped to its core, it describes an interplay between replication, variation, and selection which can generate complexity, diversity, and novelty. Its elegance lies in its simplicity and power, a combination which unfortunately also makes it readily misunderstood.

The idea of evolutionary progress is the most common – and probably the most damaging – misunderstanding of evolution. It lingers behind the phrase “higher animals” and the claim that humans evolved from apes (we are apes). It lurches into full view in the famous March of Progress illustration which has, unfortunately, become iconic of evolution.

You can read the whole thing on the SEF site. While you’re there, have a look at the other inaugural posts by Arun Sethuraman, Lee Alan Dugatkin, Jennifer Raff, Anthony Biglan, Jeremy Yoder, Madhusudan Katti, and Peter Turchin to get an idea of the voices and approaches you’ll find on the Social Evolution Forum.

What Drove the Great Dying?


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Earth (image by NASA)As long ago as forever and as far away as home, life was withering away wherever you looked. At the end of the Permian, around 250 million years ago, the creatures of Earth were devastated by an extinction that outstripped any seen before or since. Marine species suffered the most — 96% of them died out — but even among their terrestrial cousins, seven out of every ten species were lost. For countless generations, life struggled towards recovery, but it took 10 million years to rebuild the lost diversity. The cause of the catastrophe has long puzzled scientists; global warming, massive volcanos, ocean acidification, and widespread oceanic oxygen depletion have all been implicated. In a paper appearing in Science, researchers from the UK, Germany and Austria showed that increased carbon released into the atmosphere eventually acidified the oceans just as the Permian extinction reached its peak; comparing their findings with how quickly our societies release carbon, they reveal an alarming difference together with a sobering insight.

Read the rest at Accumulating Glitches

Clarkson MO, Kasemann SA, Wood RA, Lenton TM, Daines SJ, Richoz S, Ohnemueller F, Meixner A, Poulton SW, & Tipper ET (2015). Ocean acidification and the Permo-Triassic mass extinction. Science (New York, N.Y.), 348 (6231), 229-32 PMID: 25859043