April 30, 2006 - May 6, 2006 Archives

It is well known that The Panda’s Thumb is not just an evolution blog, it is also occasionally a Cassini-Huygens fanclub blog. We live-blogged the Huygens landing, and gushed over the discovery of stream channels (although annoyingly the methane oceans have not yet appeared, there clearly is some kind of methalogical cycle going on).

Someone has finally done the obvious thing and put together all of the Huygens images into a continuous animation. See the one with narration and the one with boops and beeps indicating various onboard processes. The fisheye camera perspective is kind of weird but we get a much better picture of what the surface topography looked like up close than we did from just the isolated snapshots.

It all just makes me wish they’d put a balloon and one of them plutonium-fueled Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators on Huygens so that it could float around for a few months at 10 k elevation and give us some more details of what is down there.

While I’m demanding things from NASA, here are my other requests for the Cassini mission if it goes into “extra innings” like other recent NASA missions have: (1) get some more images of the Giant Equatorial Ridge on Iapetus, (2) full radar map of Titan’s surface, and then (3) a suicide mission to get a really super-up-close view of Saturn’s rings. I want to see the individual particles, darn it! A friend tells me there is no way to slow down the Cassini craft enough to get both slow enough and close enough to image 1-meter ice boulders, but I don’t buy it. There has got to be a way!

The evolution of cooperation has long been a vexing problem in biology. In the 1960s and later, a number of proposals to account for various forms of cooperation were offered, including group selection, kin selection, and reciprocal altruism. Both kin selection and reciprocal altruism have some biological data to which to appeal. In The Selfish Gene Dawkins argued that cooperative behavior could emerge as ‘selfish’ genes evolved in the context of other genes (indeed, he’s said that the book could have been title The Cooperative Gene with no change in content) and to the extent that cooperation is an effective strategy for gene vehicles (organisms) to increase reproductive success, but that was largely a formal argument rather than an empirical one. And group selection (which Dawkins emphatically rejects), in my view at least is still on shaky empirical grounds. (Apologies to Steve Rissing, a friend and Project Steve Steve with whom I argue about that.)

A difficulty of doing research on cooperation is the same difficulty that plagues much research on other complex evolutionary phenomena, namely time: interesting multi-celled animals have (relatively) long lifetimes and following a population for many generations is impossible for a single researcher.

Enter computer models. I will not here rehearse the history of computer modeling of evolutionary processes, since I’ve previously touched on it here, here and here on PT.

Of present interest is a study of the evolution of cooperation in a computer model of evolution. Prior work has shown that there are conditions in which several kinds of ‘strategies’ for interactions among artificial agents can evolve. Robert Axelrod, for example, has done a slew of work on that topic. Game theory informs much of that research, and has been useful in predicting the occurrence of certain kinds of strategies in multi-agent contexts.

A new study by Mikhail Burtsev & Peter Turchin (Nature, 440:1041-1044, April 2006) provides a good deal more insight into how cooperative strategies can evolve.

More below the fold.

Animalcules

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A few people had nudged me to mention this on here, but I keep forgetting. I started a new blog carnival a few months back (I know, I know, like we need more of those…) This one is devoted to all things microbial, and the current edition is up today over at Discovering Biology in a Digital World. It’s still puny compared to a monster like Tangled Bank, but a nice one-stop-shop for some interesting microbiology posts.

Okay, I fully admit that in the larger context of the creationism/evolution controversy this might seem a pretty small quibble, but I think it is revealing that creationists seem to have a real problem with biological structures that we among the laypeople might refer to as boobies, beavers, and the weenus. (I’m particularly fond of the term ‘weenus’, having first come across it in Frank Zappa’s autobiography, a truly interesting read.)

It is a recent and welcome development that professional scientific journals are paying increasing attention to issues related to science education and the role of science in society. Just in the last couple of weeks, these topics have been addressed by Liza Gross’s essay in PLoS Biology about scientific literacy and politics, and by our own article about immunology and the Dover trial. Now, the Journal of Clinical Investigation, a highly regarded journal of basic and clinical research in the medical sciences, which had already published an editorial on ID several months ago, once again enters the fray.

The latest JCI issue contains an excellent piece by Attie, Sober and colleagues, which discusses the history and legal vicissitudes of the ID movement, and issues a call to action for those interested in defending good science education. The journal editors explain their motivations for publishing the article here. Both items are available for free - well worth reading.

2006-05-02_Time_John_Jones_100_people_cover.jpgCheck it out. Judge Jones made Time‘s list of 100 most influential people. Appropriately enough, he’s in the “Scientists and Thinkers” category. Since people will be reading his ruling and reading about the case for as long as evolution vs. creationism remains an issue in public education – which will be a good long time, just think how long it took for everyone to get used to heliocentrism – I think this was a highly appropriate choice.

Jones’s reaction is reported by the Associated Press:

Jones’ likeness is on the cover along with those of President Bush, Pope Benedict XVI and Oprah Winfrey. “I was dumbstruck,” he said, but he kept the honor in perspective.

”This will pass and I will be back to the more mundane things,” Jones said. “Andy Warhol said everybody gets 15 minutes of fame….I may be in minute 14.”

Well, at least until the half-dozen books, the PBS documentary, and the movie come out.

Also, if you haven’t seen it, have a listen to this radio interview that Judge Jones did with WHYY last month.

Kansas Citizens for Science is proud to announce our new website feature, KCFS News and Resources. KCFS News is using the open-source software WordPress (similar to Multiple Type, which is used here at the Panda’s Thumb), so it is much easier for us to add and organize content. Our old website, www.kcfs.org is still up as a static main page, but all new content (and much of the old content) will now be at KCFS News.

Some of the content already on KCFS News is:

  • Information about KCFS
  • Archive of the KCFS Update newsletters
  • Various resources, such as recommended books, science links, blogs, etc.
  • Resources from the Evolution 101 course I taught recently - report to follow soon
  • Downloadable fliers, such as our new flier Facts about the Science Standards

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This page is an archive of entries from April 2006 listed from newest to oldest.

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