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

Counting Chicks


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Chick and Tilda, its mother (photo © and courtesy of Hannele Luhtasela-El Showk)It’s probably not a surprise that humans aren’t the only animals with a sense of numbers. While they’re probably not actually counting, a variety of species seem to be able to tell the number of objects in a group; they can distinguish between groups with greater or fewer objects and react with surprise when the number changes unexpectedly. However, a recent study suggests that this numerical understanding may go deeper than we’ve previously thought. Continue reading

A Different View of a Museum


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I’ve always loved museums, especially natural history museums, but I’ve never managed to spend as much time wandering through them as I’d like. Fortunately, I recently discovered Shelf Life, a wonderful series of videos from the American Museum of Natural History. The web page bills it as “opening doors, pulling out drawers, and taking the lids off some of the incredible, rarely-seen items in the American Museum of Natural History” — from what I’ve seen, it’s sort of a backstage look at the museum. It’s a good reminder that museums don’t just serve to educate the public; they are also important research centers and the collections they curate are are an invaluable resource. The episodes are bite-sized; each lasts just a few minutes — long enough to tell you some interesting things, but not so long that you have to make time for it. Unfortunately, there’s only one episode per month. I’ve embedded the first three episodes, but be sure to check out the Shelf Life webpage if you’re interested in more. Continue reading

DNA can survive atmosphere re-entry


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747px-EntryOn March 29, 2011, a TEXUS-49 rocket took off from northern Sweden for a short trip into space and back through Earth’s sheltering blanket of atmosphere. This amazing feat of engineering has become surprisingly routine — we humans have gotten to the point where launching a vehicle into space to carry out an experiment or deliver a satellite into orbit no longer inspires awe and wonder. Sounding rockets are commonly used as sub-orbital research platforms. In this case, one of the experiments on the mission was a test of how well DNA molecules can survive the temperatures involved in plummeting back through Earth’s atmosphere. The results, published earlier this year in PLOS ONE, show that DNA is tough enough to make it through atmospheric re-entry after a quick jaunt in space. Continue reading

Survey for science bloggers

Paige Brown Jarreau is doing a PhD in science communication at Louisiana State University, and part of her research focuses on science bloggers. She’s surveying science bloggers about their blogging practices to gather data for her research. Since I know some of the regular readers of Inspiring Science are also science bloggers in their own right, I thought I’d try to help Paige by linking to her survey in case some of you want to participate. She’s also offering a $7.00 gift voucher from Amazon to the first 200 respondents.