Feb 122009

I just saw a very interesting piece by Ben Zimmer, whose post details 144 words for which Darwin has the earliest recorded use in English (and he compares to Lincoln, who has one). One of these words is “phylogeny”. I was a little surprised because surely Haeckel invented the term phylogeny. Indeed he did, but on reflection he obviously didn’t write in english. The 6th edition of the Origin of Species (1872) includes this paragraph

“Professor Haeckel in his “Generelle Morphologie” and in another works, has recently brought his great knowledge and abilities to bear on what he calls phylogeny, or the lines of descent of all organic beings. In drawing up the several series he trusts chiefly to embryological characters, but receives aid from homologous and rudimentary organs, as well as from the successive periods at which the various forms of life are believed to have first appeared in our geological formations. He has thus boldly made a great beginning, and shows us how classification will in the future be treated.”

It seems that Haeckel first used the phrase in 1866 in “Generelle Morphologie der Organismen” as cited by Darwin above. Is the 6th edition the first one to include this quote? I’m not sure.

I think that 144 novel words indicates that, yes Darwin was inventive, but more than that he was also very well read, and did not confine himself to english sources.

Feb 122009

Today is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. But hey, you already knew that. All the images going around seem to have Darwin with a big white beard. But lets not forget that his Beagle voyage and much of his scientific work was completed when he was a young man. So this is really just an excuse to post an image of Darwin without a beard, this is a portrait from 1816 when he was 7 years old. I got it from the excellent Wikimedia Commons, and I really encourage you to post lots of evolutionary biology images there as free use content. There are many fewer images of Darwin, his work and other Darwin-related things than I thought there would be. I keep intending to take photos of some of his other books and post them, but last time I was struggling to get good shots- must try again.

A hat-tip to Google also for posting an excellent logo today.

Jan 262009

Just watched “What Darwin Didn’t Know” with Armand Leroi as part of the BBC Darwin season. I was looking forward to it but it was a little disappointing. The tone was too sleepy and Victorian. There was some but not enough on what Darwin didn’t know, which was odd given the title. Modern evolutionary biology, the sort of topics you might see in journals were only first mentioned 40 minutes into an hour program. This included trees, evo-devo, and genomics. I would really have liked a program about the enormous pervasive splendour of modern evolutionary biology, rather than having a big section showing the same stuff again about bloody peppered moths.

On the bright side there was an almost embarrassing amount of time spent discussing cichlids. Nice! Unfortunately it was scattered with odd stuff, a couple that I remember are below.

‘Malawi was colonised about 2 million years ago’. Well the evidence indicates that the diversification occurred about 4.5 mya (Genner et al 2007).

‘Evolution of cichlids ran twice; Malawi and Tanganyika’. Hmmm probably 4 times (Tanganyika, Malawi, Victoria and palaeo-Makgadikgadi).

Didn’t they consult anybody on this stuff?

He mentioned the evolution of evolvability, but possibly meant something entirely different? That wasn’t very clear to me.

Oh well, it was quite nice visually, and not that bad really, but given the cool title I was hoping for more.

Genner, M.J., Seehausen, O., Lunt, D.H. Joyce, D.A., Carvalho, G.R, Shaw, P.W., & Turner, G.F. (2007) Age of cichlids: new dates for ancient lake fish radiations. Mol. Biol. Evol. 24: 1269-1282. PDF

Jan 142009

The British Royal Mail is issuing a set of Darwin stamps on Feb 12th (Darwin’s 200th birthday). I actually think there are 10 stamps this time, but could only find picture of these 6. Nice, although I can’t remember the last time I wrote an actual letter, maybe I can include the image in my email signature.

There was a previous set in 1982 to commemorate the centenary of Darwin’s death.

Jan 132009

2009 is Darwin year. Can we predict the crackpot evolution stories that we are certainly going to see? Stories invented by the press, artificial controversies, misinformation from anti-evolutionists. I thought it might be fun to make some predictions for 2009.

  1. Creationists will exploit PR better than scientists to get their stories into mainstream newspapers and onto TV and we will see a new telegenic and ‘reasonable’ face of evolution-bashing.
  2. Some apparently maladaptive (to the casual public observer) part of the human body or disease susceptibility will be touted as a demonstration that evolution does not work.
  3. A famous, possibly well-meaning, UK politician will advocate ‘teaching the controversy’ (i.e. creationism alongside evolution in science lessons).
  4. Steve Jones ‘evolution has stopped’ will resurface yet again and get more air time and column inches than all evolutionary biology research published in 2009 put together
  5. Some evolutionary biologist you have actually heard of with a new paper disagreeing with some minutiae of evolutionary biology (maybe in some aspect of population genetics) will be put forward as a critic of evolution on a really slow news day. OK this does contradict the one above, but I can’t get all of them right.
  6. The Pope will give a speech extolling the power and vision of God in bringing his laws of evolution by natural selection into Darwin’s stubborn mind. I hope he remembers to mention Wallace too!

On the other hand there are some things I guess we could do preemptively. Rehearse a 30 second (maximum) pitch about why evolution is really important in the modern world (you’ll need it at some point). Call science teachers at local high school and ask if they need any support material for teaching evolution. Think about evolution from the perspective of a journalist for a few minutes. Editor breathing down their necks. How are they going to put ‘men with beards’ onto page 4 without sending everyone to sleep? (Medicine and evolution. Genomics tells the history of life and evolution in exquisite detail. Evolutionary phylogenetics and population genetics are powerful tools against scary emergent diseases. Other suggestions?).

Aug 222008

There has been discussion and research for decades into support values for phylogenetic nodes and the relative quality of different phylogenies as a whole. Here is a new and impressive (although clearly subjective) criteria for confidence in a phylogenetic tree- “I am so confident in this tree I have had it tattooed onto my body”!!!
The Loom has been posting pictures in the Science Tattoo Emporium for a while now and I noticed that there are 4 phylogeny tattoos. So ask yourself, how confident are you in that tree you just built? Confident enough to show it to a colleague? Confident enough to publish it? Or confident enough to live with it forever?

But what if further analysis, or data collection, shows it to be wrong? This happens frequently, even with apparently very good quality trees. Do you then say to your grandchildren “yes this tattoo is how we saw eukaryotic phylogeny in 2004. Its wrong of course, pass me that pen and I’ll fix it to show you where the basal amoebae really fall“.

Some trees of course don’t really have to be right, such as Darwin’s first tree diagram, or Haeckel’s Tree of Life, they are just beautiful and important.
Others, such as the one pictured at the top of the blog, are more specific, depicting the “5 kingdoms” or this one on the evolutionary history of HIV. Truly impressive, but after some thought, maybe not for me.

Jul 012008

Today is the 150th anniversary of the presentation of the work of Darwin and Wallace at the Linnean Society. Tell somebody about it, just one extra person. Simple things like this make all the difference. Many people might be surprised to hear that natural selection and evolutionary biology form the core of much of modern biology. Even some other biologists can be surprised! The Evolutionary Biology Group at Hull hosted a party for the Department this afternoon to celebrate the Darwin-Wallace anniversary. Lots of cava and a huge amounts of cake. A special mention to Rich who really got into the spirit of things and baked a “Natural Selection” gooseberrry pie (that tasted much better than it looked). I’m already looking forward to next year’s big celebrations of the publication of the Origin and Darwin’s birth.