I was eight years old in late November 1963. I didn’t pay much attention to the TV news – some guy had been shot or something, and I wasn’t to know that C. S. Lewis had died until much later – but I was instantly taken by the eerie sound of the opening music of a new show. Yes, it was the very first episode of Dr Who, in glorious monochrome! I was a Whovian from the beginning, before it was cool. I’m so hip…
Doctor Who was all about time and space, as the famous TARDIS evidenced in its very acronym. And time and space are the very subject matter of evolution and related subjects. So in honour of the twelve (thirteen? 57?) doctors, welcome to the day of the Doctor of Evolution! [all rights reserved, patent pending]
If you open the door to evolution, you find that it is bigger inside the theory than outside. This causes some confusion to novices. Even, sometimes, for putative experts:
Judge Starling reminds Card Carrying #ENCODE members that junk DNA is not a synonym for noncoding DNA. The good Judge (a friend of the good Doctor?) also notes that junk DNA is not there to “protect” used DNA either – A Pre-Refuted Hypothesis on the Subject of “Junk DNA”.
Evolution can achieve weird and wonderful things, some of them as weird as any alien the Doctor has ever encountered. How about ant images on the wings of a fly? Pictures in my head: What is that on the wing of the fly? What does it tell us about adaptation?
Humans appear in evolution, but contrary to some (nameless) science fiction shows, they aren’t the inevitable outcome of it. Still, we are humans (some of us, anyway – hands up those with more than one heart), so we are fascinated by how we evolved and what it means.
Carl Zimmer notes that viruses have had a real role in our evolution: How Our Minds Went Viral posted at The Loom. He notes that we carry many stretches of DNA that were inserted by endogenous retroviruses (that’s the sort of technobabble you’d expect to find in a Doctor Who script) and discusses one such example.
In Catching Fire. The other one, Greg Laden considers the hypothesis that the use of fire explains much human specialities and adaptations. It’s the need of brains to eat, as it were. Mind, that means that a Time Lord must eat so much more than we do…
And Markeyus argues that Why I,Robot should never become a reality posted at Live2Conquer (because they will evolve in ways we don’t want them to). A little dystopian, but probably not enough. On this theme, Chris Adami gives an excellent overview of something that should be a Doctor Who script: evolving machines, in Darwin inside the machine: A brief history of digital life posted at Spherical Harmonics.
David Morrison, a parasitologist (not a parasite, no!) sent us two contributions of his: the one where he claims that the history of language is not really the same as evolutionary biology – Language history and language weirdness; and another where he points out the evolutionary consequences of failing to maintain within-individual genetic diversity – Toulouse-Lautrec: family trees and networks. I wonder if the second one is a little short?
It’s not all about humans, though. While you could possibly have seen extinct organisms in life if you had a TARDIS, the rest of us have to rely on fossils. Ed Yong The Oldest Big Cat, From the Roof of the World. Meanwhile, Noah Reid at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! explores a 52 million year old fossil sheds light on swift and hummingbird flight evolution; they even know what colour its plumage was. MSU graduate student Patric Vaelli describes research on tetrodotoxic animals (I’d never seen the word before either) in Poisons and Microbes posted at BEACON, the lab blog of a centre for evolution.
Evolution is not just a process, but it is also a theory (or rather, a set of theories and models), and like any scientific theory it requires techniques to uncover what is happening and explain it. So, no “timey-wimey” sort of explanations here, no. It’s all adult reading material (the War Doctor would understand).
Charles Goodnight explains the statistics of selection on correlated quantitative traits in Measuring Selection on Multiple Traits at Evolution in Structured Populations. Math warning (but it doesn’t look too complex). Then there’s the question whether Baker’s Yeast is a Good Model for the Evolution of Multicellularity? by Larry Moran at Sandwalk. The theme is continued in a review of a couple of recent papers: Evolution, Variation, Development, and Strains of Artificial Life in the Reading Queue posted at Synthetic Daisies, and in Evolving multicellularity in the lab: exercises by Ford Denison. It’s relatively easy to evolve multicellularity in yeast, in the lab. Why did it take so long then in nature? Possibly, predation….
Some bibs and bobs: Apparently, Scientists have created Detailed Map of the Dinosaur Brain according to Mike at the Everything Dinosaur Blog.
Ben Haller Timothy Farkas discusses the Ecological effects of camouflage evolution in the stick insect Timema cristinae at EcoEvoEvoEco. Apparently it adapts to novel host plants (who knew? Well, we might have expected it).
Glenn Branch considers an argument from falsifiability made by Intelligent Designist Michael Behe in Falsifia-behe-lity | NCSE posted at SLA (Science League of America; they have cool constumes and everything, but that’s the wrong genre here).
If I may be imodest, I note a few items I have posted myself in the last little while. In one – Articles of faith: The theological and philosophical origins of the concept of species – I try to argue that the notion there is a species rank is due to the efforts of 16th century theologians to fit all the “kinds” onto the Ark (it was also posted at The Conversation, a really nice site for generally intellectual popular articles). I follow it up with Yet Another Article on Species Concepts (YAAOSC, as it is increasingly known in the trade) – Are species theoretical objects? Are you bored with species concepts yet? Wait. I’m a (not the) Doctor, and I can say a lot more…
In another I roughly trace the origins of the phrase, and to an extent the concept, of “intelligent design” – The origin of “intelligent design” in the 18th and 19th centuries. If I only had a TARDIS I could have gone much farther back…
The January host will be The Genealogical World of Phylogenetic Networks.
So, there you have it. The only thing left is to state, categorically and without fear of contradiction, that the very best Doctor is Matt Smith, who acts the rest into a small blue box…