Evolution Trumps Money at Smithsonian

Great News from the Smithsonian.

Not only is Lawrence Small finally out (after his issues with expense accounts finally caught up to him) but Cristián Samper is in as the Acting Director. Samper is the current Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and is an excellent evolutionary biologist / tropical ecologist. Here is hoping that he becomes the permanent director, although it will be a loss for the Museum of Natural History if he does.

If you want to blame Cristián for something, he was the Teaching Assistant for the course I took as an undergraduate at Harvard that finally convinced me to be a biologist. This was a Tropical Ecology course taught by Peter Ashton and Otto Solbrig that in addition to being a good lecture course, had a field trip to Venezuela for three weeks. On the trip we visited and studied all sorts of tropical ecosystems. The best part was getting advice on birding from Cristián, who pretty much knew every bird in every place we went.

In honor of Cristián I am posting a picture of him working hard in Venezuela as part of the course (that’s him in red).

Fun at Bodega Bay (U. C. Davis’ Marine Lab and site of the U. C. Davis workshop in Applied Phylogenetics)

Well, gave a talk today out at Bodega Bay as part of the U. C. Davis workshop in Applied Phylogenetics. I talked about my favorite topic, phylogenomics (always good to preach, even to the converted) and enjoyed meeting the students and talking to the other faculty. But the main resons for this blog — Davis’ marine lab on a nice day is simply spectacular. If I ever teach a workshop I am going to try and hold it there.

Is it OK to have a young earth creationist get a PhD in Paleontology?

Very interesting article in the NY Times about a Young Earth creationist who just got his PhD in Paleontology at the University of Rhode Island. The main question of the article was – should biologists consider this a bad thing? That is, if someone plans to do the work of a PhD thesis and will do it well, should their motivation for doing the PhD be considered when (1) accepting them into the program and (2) giving them the PhD?

The person, Marcus Ross is now teaching at Liberty University and some are concerned is using his credentials as a PhD Paleontologist to promote Intelligent Design as a scientific theory.

I am pretty torn about this one. On the one hand, when there ar elimited resources for training and funding PhD students, why waste money on someone who will end up probably not contributing to the field in a useful manner? On the other hand, if he is able to separate his personal religious beliefs from his scientific work, all the power to him.

I guess I have no real objection per se to him being a Young Earth Creationsist and getitng the PhD – after all many many many scientists have conflicting beliefs about science and religion. But I would object to training him if I knew that he simply planned to use his credentials to make anti scientific statements. Similarly, if someone was in the Med School at Davis and I knew they were planning on using their MD to write prescriptions for themselves and their friends, I would not support their place in the Med School. In the end, intent is a part of education and training and simply doing the work required is not enough to have me spend time helping train someone.
You can read comments on the article at the Times Website here

Flock of Dodos – Evolution vs. Intelligent Design

Well, Randy Olson has done it again. Flock of Dodos is his new film. It is about the Intelligent Design vs. Evolution Debate and from what I can gather it skewers both sides of this issue quite a bit.

Randy was the head of Prairie Starfish Productions, which made some of the dorkier and funnier science moves I have ever seen including one about Loster Fisherman in New England. I first met Randy while on a Deep Sea cruise in the Gulf of Mexico where he was filming my then advisor Colleen Cavanaugh for a film about women scientists. He and I played some mischief on her associated with her first deep sea Alvin dive where we made a video of her stuffed panda being tortured.

But that is beside the point, Randy is really good about seeing through some of the facade of seriousness in science to get to the absurdities and dorkiness of some aspects of science.

So I suggest people try and check out his new film which is being screened around the country on Darwin’s birthday next week.

Evolution in action – Dog Breed Hybrids in NY Times

Excellent article in the NY Times Magazine this weekend on hybrids of purebred dogs.

It is basically a lesson in microevolution, inbreeding, and modern genetics. Some great lines are found throughout including

Havens moved on, like some strange Noah touring his ark — in which every tidy two-by-two had been split apart, jumbled and recombined into a single animal: “That’s a Chihuahua-bichon . . . here’s a half-American Eskimo and half-Lhasa apso” — his voice lifting each time as if to ask, What will they think of next? But he had dreamed up a lot of these things himself.


Dogs with separation anxiety are now commonly treated with psycho-pharmaceuticals. Maybe re-engineering the dog itself, hybridizing newer models, represents “the last piece of the puzzle,” Bob Vetere says. “Will they reach a level of convenience where you have a postage-stamp-size dog that makes you dinner when you come home and reads the paper to you before you go to bed? I’m not sure that’s going to happen. But certainly someone’s going to try it.” After all, the dog, which we’ve molded into one of the most physically diverse mammalian species on earth, has so far been uncommonly obliging to our needs. Why shouldn’t we be capable of driving the entire species toward its inevitable end, down a millennia-long trajectory from wolf to stuffed animal?

The blade runner future is nearly with us … what is to stop more and more twisted projects from happening? Nothing really. I mean, dog breeds are already freakish. With a little extra push, they will just get more bizarre. The really bad part of this is that the breed dogs and then kill the puppies that don’t cut it for whatever their goals were. That has been happening for ages but it still saddens me.

Despite some depressing aspects of the article, it is a good read.

Antibiotic resistant bacteria plaguing US soldiers in Iraq

Very interesting article in Wired magazine about an antibiotic resistant bacteria that is plaguing US soldiers in military hospitals in Iraq. It’s got some stuff I would disagree with in there about gene transfer and evolution but overall this is a really good and interesting article about bacterial evolution and antibiotic resistance.

Interesting (but misguided) letter to the editor

There is a funny/interesting letter to the editor in one of the local papers out here. It is basically about how an article on Neanderthals is interesting but how more should be written about current topics in evolution, which sounds great. Then the author proceeds to quote Fisher and Morgan regarding human evolution, not the most modern of research to quote. Anyway, the calculation they made I found to be quite interesting …

Science and Education Win Another Round …

Well, the good news keeps pouring in for science education and the teaching of evolution. The Cobb County School Board, which had tried to insert religious points of view into the teaching of evolution, have backed down. They had placed stickers on biology textbooks that read

This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered

Yet, of course they did not label any other area of science in this way. AP reports that

The Cobb County school board signed an agreement filed in U.S. District Court on Tuesday agreeing never to use a similar sticker or to undermine the teaching of evolution in science classes.

It is nice to see that they have had a change of heart, or at least have realized that they would lose this fight. Either way, science and education win this round. Unfortunately, the proponents of Intelligent Design, will try again and again. And they should be fought every step of the way to keep them from attacking the teaching of evolution in science classes.

Open Access Darwin?

Well I have been surfing around looking for downloadable versions of some of Darwin’s books. Here are some links:

Anybody out there know of others please point them out.

Announcement: Thinking Small: Microbial Diversity and Its Role in Conservation – The Center for Biodiversity and Conservation’s 12th Annual Symposium

Just thought I would post this here as it seems like it will be a really cool meeting (and I was on the steering commitee.


Thinking Small: Microbial Diversity and Its Role in Conservation
The Center for Biodiversity and Conservation’s Twelfth Annual Symposium
American Museum of Natural History
April 26 and 27, 2007

Symposium Theme
Microscopic organisms-including viruses, bacteria, archaea, and single-celled eukaryotic organisms-comprise the vast majority of life on the planet, yet startling little is known about their true diversity and the multitudinous roles that they play in the ecosphere. The knowledge that we do have tends to come from either those organisms that can be cultured in the laboratory (estimated to be <1% of all species) or those that make us or other organisms that are important to us sick. The revolution of using DNA sequences to discover and describe microbial diversity has drastically altered our view of the microbial world and its players, however. Less than two decades ago, using ribosomal RNA gene sequences, Carl Woese and colleagues proposed an entirely new classification of life, that of three domains of organisms-Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya-in opposition to the traditional five-kingdom schema. Now, new biochemical processes, including new forms of photosynthesis and even electricity-generating bacteria are being discovered as culture-independent and broader explorations into new habitats are performed. Yet, at the same time that we begin to uncover new hidden potential benefits of microorganisms, the news is also replete with stories of so-called emergent diseases that threaten humans as well as other organisms on the planet.

This symposium will bring together a diverse group of microbiologists and conservation biologists to explore this intersection of two fields that, until now, has not been considered in depth. We hope to address the broad questions of: How much microbial diversity is there on the planet? How does this diversity affect other organisms, both positively and negatively? How should conservation practices take microbial life into account?

Audience: This symposium will bring together scientists from the traditionally disparate fields of microbiology and conservation, including biogeochemists, marine microbiologists, disease ecologists, and microbial systematists. as well as conservation practitioners, wildlife managers, policy makers, educators, students, and interested members of the general public.


CALL FOR POSTERS: The symposium will include a poster session. Details for content guidelines and abstract-submission requirements are available at http://cbc.amnh.org/symposia/microbes/.