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Tag Archives: biology

I have just finished Jerry Coyne’s book on the fact of evolution entitled Why Evolution Is True. I say fact, of course, since there is no longer any discussion of whether evolution happened in biology. Not because evolution is dogmatically unquestionable, as evolution deniers will say, but because such a discussion is utterly pointless. 

He begins the book by describing what evolution is (itself often misunderstood) and a bit about systematics. It’s a good basic description of how phylogenetic trees are built from a comparative morphology point of view. He moves on to some interesting examples of visible evolution in the fossil record, discussing the near-continuous changes in radiolarians and foraminiferans, some of the recent fossil evidences for various transitions such as the aquatic-terrestrial tetrapod transition, dinosaur to bird, and (with good reason, as Jerry demonstrates, the darling of modern paleontology) land-sea mammalian transition.

Jerry continues with some of the earliest evidences of evolution that was discussed in The Origin, such as vestigial organs and atavisms, as well as something somewhat more modern – evidence from pseudogenes. Embryology is also strong in this chapter and he clearly describes what “phylogeny begets ontogeny” means, with examples. This easily leads into, of course, how bad design occurs. I’ve always enjoyed examples of clearly inept design, and here Jerry gives some of the more famous ones like the tortuous path of the aortic arches in humans and how such a ridiculous ‘design’ arose from contingency dictated by our evolutionary past. 

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The web blogsite MySpace does not have a Science section. I find that rather insulting, being a scientist. The world makes use of the benefits of Science to such an extent that the MySpace gods are completely oblivious to their dependence on it. In a sense, this jaded attitude is in part responsible for the rise of pseudoscience and spirituality. In my book, a spiritual person is a flake. Where does Deepak Chopra get off telling us that scientists have hijacked the term ‘quantum mechanics’ as if it were spiritual gurus and not physicists that were its developers? He’s got it backwards! It is HE that has hijacked it and made it out to be something which it is most definitely not. Quantum healing my ass! What a rube. Anyway, this article is cut and pasted from the Australian Skeptics website and is an excellent discussion on Shannon information and the increase in information in the genome. Why don’t creationists get it? This is so much more fascinating than the banal god-dunn-it!

Speaking of them, why are they so dishonest when going out to interview scientists? PZ Myers ran into the same problem when Ben Stein filmed that train wreck. I’ll lay money down that Richard is totally up front with his motives. Creationist propagandists, on the other hand, always seem to use underhanded tactics.


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There are many out there that refuse to accept that the same science which is used to convict criminals can also be used to demonstrate conclusively that humans evolved from common ancestors with chimpanzees, which evolved from common ancestors with great apes, etc. Very strange, since lay people are so trusting of the former. I’m going to write here about a story about one gene, out of the many thousands of similar stories in our genome, the NANOG gene. For those that are interested in molecular studies of evolution, with particular reference to human evolution, I strongly recommend Daniel Fairbanks Relics of Eden. This is a great primer for how molecular biology is applied to the problem of evolution. The following information is contained within Chapter 5 and Appendix 1 of Relics of Eden.

What is NANOG?

NANOG is a homeobox gene which encodes a transcription factor critical in development. In other words, it is a regulatory gene. The products of this gene allow cultured stem cells to divide indefinitely without differentiation (to become specialized cell types). It becomes activated shortly after conception.

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The origin of life problem is perhaps the most important question to ever have been the focus of scientific scrutiny. The only other question that I think rates of similar importance is the origin of the universe. Both questions have special obstacles to overcome before any answers are within sight.

The Miller-Urey experiment of the 50s was a lightningrod for research into this question, but the euphoria caused by the viewpoint that the answers were near quickly receded once the scope of the problem was realized and it was decades before the excitement was rekindled in the scientific world. It’s no surprise that the search is a difficult one. Remember, researchers are trying to compress the millions of years that undoubtedly were required for nature to give life a kick start into the lifespan of humans. Couple this with only a limited knowledge of what the conditions were at the time life started except in the grossest terms with the possibility that trace elements may be essential for the synthesis of life greatly compounds the issue. Anyone thinking that if life arose through naturalistic processes means it should be both easy, and that a mere 50 years of research should have resulted in the creation of protolife really doesn’t have a good grasp of the scope of the problem.

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