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
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.
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.
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
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
This is a story about a gene which makes nursing mice produce more nutritious milk while also making their offspring less demanding. The gene serves to balance nutrient supply and demand between the mother and pup. If the gene is knocked out, the mother’s milk is less rich, but the pups are more demanding, evening out the impact. Things only go wrong when there’s a mismatch. If pups with a defective copy of the gene feed from a normal mother, their increased demand makes them grow larger than normal. Conversely, pups with a good copy end up smaller if they feed from a mother lacking a working copy, since her milk is less nutritious. Continue reading
One of the striking things about the genetic code is the remarkable way it twists back on itself, combining redundancy and utility in a simple, elegant language. Many of us are introduced to the basic concept in school, but that introduction often leaves out the wrinkles — some of them newly discovered — which give the system its resilience and precision. Despite their complexity, most of these tricks are pretty easy to explain with linguistic analogies, which is precisely what I’m going to try in this post. Continue reading