Evo-Devo – a parody music video

Evo-devo (evolutionary developmental biology) is an area of study which helps to illuminate how evolution works, yet even people who have a bit of an interest in evolutionary theory seem to overlook it (and deniers often seem to have little to no knowledge of its existence). For me, reading about it in Sean B. Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful was eye-opening and made sense of so much (couple it with Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish). A Capella Science has done an excellent parody of this year’s summer smash/annoyance, Despacito, packing it full of fascinating science which fits the rhythms and rhymes of the original song brilliantly. Check it out and, as the video also recommends, check out Carroll’s book too if you haven’t already.

 

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October 8, 2017 · 12:00 pm

Reading List for Science Writing (which I haven’t read)

In the time since I last updated this blog, well over a year ago, quite a lot has changed. My palaeobiology degree feels like it has atrophied over the last five years and I was beginning to feel as though a future with any sort of science in it (other than simply reading about it in the news) was becoming increasingly distant. Then, just a few weeks ago, I found out that one of the local universities had an MSc in Science Communication, so I applied. I figured that doing it part-time would be the best option financially, so I’ve got two years which will hopefully bring out the passion for science communication I once had (the last year or so has mostly consisted of vaguely keeping up with progress in science, whilst also occasionally telling people on the Internet why they are wrong). I’m already getting the itch to write, so I am off to a good start.

There is no reading list for my course. Instead, I’ve decided to make myself a list of books to read which I think could really complement my studies and might be useful for anyone else interested in science writing or any other form of science communication. I could recommend excellent popular science books which are worth reading simply because they are brilliant, but that is a decent topic for another post.

For Inspiration

The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing – Dawkins (Ed)

What better way to become inspired to produce good quality, if not excellent, science writing than reading one of the best science writers expressing their passions? With The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, you are given much more than just one of the best, you are treated to the best across a diversity of fields. Richard Dawkins, a superb science communicator himself, has collected dozens of excerpts which he has curated into four sections expressing What Scientists Are, What Scientists Study, What Scientists Think, and What Scientists Delight In. It will surely spark the imagination for any budding science writer and should prove to be a valuable resource.

A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bryson

Good science writing often requires taking complex, jargon-riddled concepts and translating them for a wider audience without distorting the message or diluting beyond recognition, all whilst making sure not to condescend the audience. Bill Bryson is a travel writer who set out to educate himself, and eventually others, about science in a way which was accessible – a big step up from the science he learnt in school. I’ve chosen this book partly because I feel like I should have already read it, but it should also serve as a strong example of how to communicate science effectively.

 

For What Science Is

The Demon-Haunted World – Sagan

The purpose of Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World was to show how science functions, how to recognise valid science and how to recognise pseudoscience. The subtitle is, appropriately, “Science as a Candle in the Dark”. Any science communicator needs to have a strong grasp of what science is and how to recognise it, so I’ve chosen Sagan’s book with the hope that I might be able to learn from a master.

 

 

Unweaving the Rainbow – Dawkins

I’ve already mentioned that Richard Dawkins is a superb science communicator, I could recommend a number of his books, but I have chosen this one because it seems like essential reading for any science enthusiast (and because I haven’t yet read it). Dawkins addresses and rebuts the claim that science diminishes our wonder at the natural world by explaining how things work – a rainbow is no less magnificent because we understand the science behind it, but is arguably even more awe-inspiring. It’s a feeling which I expect Dawkins to express beautifully and with which any science enthusiast will agree.

 

For the Bad Science

Bad Science – Goldacre

Although The Demon-Haunted World likely covers a lot of useful information on identifying pseudoscience and poor science journalism, I’ve chosen to include Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science as it takes a look at a range of poor science. We all have our blindspots within science and our ability to spot the rubbish can always do with being fine-tuned. Science writers have a responsibility to ensure that they are accurate and are not propagating unscientific nonsense.

 

 

Why People Believe Weird Things – Shermer 

In Why People Believe Weird Things, Michael Shermer tackles pseudoscience and superstition, areas of misunderstanding with which science writers can expect to butt heads (it’s anti-evolutionists which I personally come across the most). Understanding why people believe such bizarre things and how to identify their lies is another necessary skill, which this book should bolster. As a bonus, you get a foreword by one of the most talented science writers – the late Stephen Jay Gould.

 

 

 

For Style

The Elements of Style – Strunk and White

It’s no use studying up on your chosen area of science, learning how to translate it for a popular audience, discovering how to identify and refute pseudoscience, if you can’t write. The Elements of Style has a reputation for being one of the best references for getting to grips with the English language and a must-read regardless of what topic about which you intend to write. Handily, it is quite short too.

 

 

 

Other Options

Whilst searching for images and other information for this post, I stumbled across some other books which might be useful additions to this list. If I manage to find time to read through the books that I’ve mentioned, I might move on to reading some of the following:

A Field Guide for Science Writers: The Official Guide of the National Association of Science Writers – Eds. Blum, Knudson, and Henig

Investigating Science Communication in the Information Age: Implications for Public Engagement and Popular Media – Eds. Hollman, Whitelegg, Scanlon, Smidt, and Thomas

Science Communication: A Practical Guide for Scientists – Bowater and Yeoman.

The Science Writers’ Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish, and Prosper in the Digital Age – Eds. Nijhuis, and Hayden

Science Blogging: The Essential Guide – Eds. Wilcox, Brookshire, and Goldman

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century – Pinker

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I love you to the Moon and back

I’m not the most romantic of people. Despite at least one of my favourite films being a quirky romance (Amélie) and my favourite poem fitting into that category (He Wishes For The Cloths of Heaven by WB Yeats, but also check out my favourite Yorkshire dialect poem Erroo’as by Benny Wilkinson), I tend to cringe when anyone is being soppy about their partners. The phrase I love you to the Moon and back has always garnered a derisive snort from me, but that will have to stop.

The Moon is an average of 238,855 miles from the Earth and at perigee, its closest point, it is 225,623 miles away. On average, a person walks around 7,500 steps per day, which amounts to around 216,262,500 steps in an 80 year lifetime. With the average stride, this amounts to around 110,000 miles, which isn’t enough to get halfway to the Moon even at its closest point. Loving someone to the Moon and back would equate to around four lifetimes of walking, which is extremely dedicated.

It is also approximately 451 times more miles than the romantic benchmark set by The Proclaimers. 

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Science and the EU

Science is one of those pesky areas of study which can impact on any part of life whether you realise it or not. Scientific research affects the technology we are becoming increasingly reliant upon, it affects healthcare, how we understand and respond to climate change, how we can feed and house an increasing global population, how we can provide energy on a sustainable level, and how we understand our place on this planet and in the universe, among other things. Having UK research at the forefront of science is advantageous as we become more aware of some of the many obstacles we will face over the coming decades.

Currently, the European Union is increasingly the world’s biggest scientific contributor, ahead of the US and China, and the UK sits alongside Germany as one of the major influencers within the EU network, recently becoming number one globally in terms of scientific productivity. The UK is able to help guide scientific research which benefits us, the EU, and has a global impact. Science is becoming increasingly collaborative and we are at the forefront of that progress as a member of the EU, winning the majority of the most prestigious grants (€1.7bn to Germany’s €1.1bn from 2007-2013). In the current funding period, UK-based researchers are lead coordinators for 892 projects, whilst Germany boasts 532 lead coordinators and our position within the EU gives us priority access to major scientific facilities throughout the union.

The UK spends 1.7% of GDP on research, below the average of 1.9% for EU nations, but this is not an issue whilst in the EU. In the 2007-2013 period, the UK gave €78bn to the EU, €5.4bn of which went into research and development; the UK received an impressive €8.8bn in grants for R&D in return. Universities in the UK receive around 16% of their research funding from the EU and 15% of academic staff are non-UK EU nationals (rising to 20% in elite universities).

The free sharing of ideas, increased mobility of scientists and increased collaboration are all major contributors to the advancement of science, which are all achieved through our position in the EU. We also have collaboration between universities, industry, regulators, and healthcare providers, all facilitated by our EU membership (the Innovative Medicines Initiative, for example). The life sciences industry alone is worth around £56 billion per year to the UK economy and EU membership encourages major medical technology and pharmaceutical companies to base projects in the UK.

What if we leave? 

Outside of the European Union, 13 countries successfully receive funding for scientific research, most notably Switzerland and Israel. Both Switzerland and Israel are associated states which are more successful than the UK with grant applications to the EU and receive more funding per capita as well. The UK also has major collaborations with CERN and the European Space Agency, both of which are outside of the EU and are hugely successful on the global stage. EU regulations on clinical trials have been accused of hampering medical research in the UK and the EU’s position on GM crops is enforced – both of which can arguably be improved by leaving the union.

It is not out of the question that the UK could continue to receive EU funding for scientific research, but it would likely take a heavy blow. Those prestigious grants where the UK lead with €1.7bn from 2007-2013? Switzerland and Israel won €0.6bn and €0.4bn respectively. Those 892 lead coordinators? Israel can boast 90, whilst Switzerland manage 15. Some might argue that the money we save through EU payments could be used to fund our own research, even though we would likely still make payments and the economy is expected to suffer during the negotiation period after we depart the union. Our 1.7% of GDP spent on research is paltry compared to Switzerland (2.8%) and Israel (4.4%) and would, if anything, decrease.

One of the major appeals for leaving the EU is the ostensible ability to better control our borders and clamp down on immigration. In order to access EU research networks, freedom of movement is required in order to become an associate state (Israel get out of this due to the date they became associates). After Switzerland’s referendum to limit migration, they were reduced to partial associate status, heavily impacting their ability to receive funding and precipitating a loss in confidence in their researchers’ abilities to commit to EU projects. If they continue their fight against mass immigration, they might find theirselves relegated to third country status and take a further hit to their funding.

Upon exiting the EU, the UK would give up a key position in the European Research Area Committee, able to attend but with restricted input. Priority would be lost for access to facilities, major biotech and pharmaceutical companies would have less incentive to base research in the UK, and non-UK EU researchers would have fewer reasons to remain or take work in the country.

Conclusion

Whether we should remain in the EU is a multi-faceted issue and should not be decided based on a single policy, but when it comes to scientific research it seems obvious to me why fewer than 1 in 8 UK scientists thinks that we should leave. We can either go it alone and risk taking a huge nosedive in available funding, risk scaring off EU researchers and companies, and take a hit to our global standing, or we can remain a heavily funded leader of one of the top research networks in the world. Hindering our scientific advances will only exacerbate other issues which are becoming increasingly important, so this is about much more than science.

A few resources:

The parliamentary science and technology committee inquiries, here.

The inquiry case for remaining in the EU, here.

The inquiry case for leaving, here.

The Nature poll, here, and an article about the debate, here.

Some useful figures on the funding, here.

And some opinion articles which influenced this hasty blog post, here, here and here.

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The Tree of Life needs to be chopped down?

In January 2009, the popular science magazine New Scientist ran a controversial cover story declaring that “Darwin was wrong,” about the Tree of Life. Darwin famously presented the concept of life branching like a tree in his seminal work and it has been a mainstay, almost an icon, of evolutionary theory ever since. Unsurprisingly, anti-evolutionists aim a lot of their criticisms at this understanding of evolution. It is not uncommon for them to reference the New Scientist article and the evidence it presents. Such an article was doing the rounds recently on Facebook, so I felt the urge to have my say.

The Tree of Life is a model for understanding evolution, but it is not applicable in all cases. Organisms often swap genes through a process called Horizontal Gene Transfer (HGT) which can render the use of a tree ineffective – when genes are hopping about from branch to branch they can no longer be traced in the linear fashion necessary for a tree with dichotomous branching. Whole organisms can also combine, through a process known as endosymbiosis, wherein an organism becomes part of a larger host cell as they become mutually dependent – it’s how eukaryotes have mitochondria. When whole organisms combine, you suddenly have two branches growing into each other. The same problem arises near the tips of branches, where hybridisation amongst closely related species messes with the tree metaphor. All of these things combined make evolution more like a tangled web than a tree of life, so do we need to chop down the tree and find a new metaphor?

There are two ways a model can be used in science which are relevant here. Firstly, the model can be used to literally describe the important features which fit every example of the phenomenon in question. Secondly, the model can be used to give a detailed description of one example, which is used as a basis for understanding more complex examples. The Tree of Life does not fit the first approach very well, so any evolutionary biologist (or critic) looking for it to function this way are not going to find it useful. It does, however, fit the second approach, as multicellular organisms generally do pass on their genes in the linear fashion required for the Tree of Life model to work, so it can be used as a basis for understanding the more complex additions of HGT, endosymbiosis and hybridisation. In this latter sense, it is also useful pedagogically – students learn the basic branching concept of the ToL before moving on to more complex models; that’s how many concepts are taught in science, for example, students learn about electron shells before they learn about how we understand the positions of electrons in light of quantum mechanics.

I like to think of the theory of evolution as a bit like a bungalow. Darwin and Wallace laid the foundations and built the frame of the building, but it needed more to be a home. The Modern Synthesis gave it walls, windows and doors, but it’s not quite the same building we can walk around today. Since then, some walls have been knocked down, some new ones added, rooms redecorated, even a conservatory and a porch built. Darwin and Wallace would possibly not recognise this home at first – they would need a good look around, but they would still recognise it as a bungalow; no extra floors have been added – it certainly isn’t a tower building masquerading as a bungalow. Theories are often relatively simple and that allows them to cover a broad range of phenomena. That’s a strength, not a weakness.

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I’ve been absent…

I haven’t posted anything since early December, something which needs to change as soon as possible. December was an incredibly busy month, so naturally I struggled to find time to write (and when writing anything science related you really should take your time). Then I got out of the swing of things. The 6 Nations rugby is getting in the way a bit lately, but I need to stop making excuses. Expect a few short pieces, maybe some personal things.

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Intelligent Design’s problem with the Cambrian explosion

Last night I made a grave error. I made the mistake of attempting to peruse the Intelligent Design movement’s main website, Evolution News and Viewsto see what they have said about recent developments on the Cambrian explosion. I personally don’t think that researchers should give them much thought, but as I am currently just a blogger I will occasionally address them. It is my intention to get my hands on Stephen Meyer’s book Darwin’s Doubt and review it though that may be a long time coming, especially considering that they have made a follow-up to address critics. Until I have read their books, I don’t plan on getting into the details of their arguments. Right now, however, I am more concerned with their approach to the supposed debate.

Firstly, they sound desperate to appear original and as though scientists researching the Cambrian explosion are slowly coming round to their way of thinking. They often state things in a way which suggests that Meyer got there first, for example, Graham Budd was apparently recently “confirming Meyer’s denial” about Precambrian organisms, when the reality is that the interpretations Meyer favours were first offered by evolution-accepting palaeontologists. Cambrian and Ediacaran experts are constantly described as admitting to something which the ID crowd believes; their loaded language is meant to give the impression that they are way ahead of the experts.

The ID presentation of the Cambrian explosion appears to be that is that it was relatively short (10 million years appears to be a figure they will accept), that bilaterian phyla appeared very suddenly in the Cambrian, that there were no precursors found amongst Ediacaran organisms, and that there is no satisfactory evolutionary explanation for it. You will find all of these views, even the last one, preceding Meyer’s publications and from experts in relative fields. The problem for them here is that they are not trying to solve any problems – they already think that they have the answer, yet it really offers no explanation.

Secondly, they consistently complain that they are being ignored. Nobody name-drops Meyer, nobody cites his book, nobody addresses his main thesis. They even do this when discussing papers which focus on specific phenomena, as though every single paper relating to the Cambrian explosion must address their pet theory (I use that term loosely). They are like the guy in a bar who seems to want everyone to fight him (perhaps better left ignored). Scientists are quite happily dissecting every aspect of the Cambrian diversification, looking at the genetic changes involved, the divergence times, the environmental changes, taphonomic changes, identifying fossils and working out how they fit in, looking at the timings of the events and so on. The debate is ongoing, there are many, many voices clamouring to be heard, trying desperately to tie together an overwhelmingly large, yet incomplete, dataset which befuddles even the most astute mind. Teasing out cause and effect in deep time is difficult and frustrating, people come at it from different angles, new evidence and new ideas can cause major shifts in thought. Meyer and his crew are desperate to be the most heard voice, they want their issue addressed and until someone addresses it they will assume that they are being ignored (which is tantamount to admitting defeat, by the looks of it).

Their third issue is that their main focus isn’t actually at the heart of the Cambrian explosion, despite their best wishes. The diversification can be perceived in many ways, with current thought often favouring its interpretation as an ecological explosion. It has often been perceived as an explosion in disparate body plans, which is not exactly the wrong way to look at it, but can be seen as the result of the ecological driving forces. The ID proponents take this a step further; it isn’t simply about body plans – it’s about the new information behind those body plans. With their rapid appearance narrative of the Cambrian explosion, this perspective on the diversification seems like a major issue, a sudden, unprecedented influx of biological information. Understandably, when addressing some of the ecological forces at play we don’t necessarily need to address the genetic changes, but they can’t always accept that. The genetic changes are important, but it does seem to be the case that the genetic toolkit necessary was already largely in place well before the Cambrian explosion (sponges, for example, appear to have some functioning genes which are used in more complex organisms in the development of the nervous system). So some Precambrian organisms may have had the capacity for evolving some of the body plans we see in the Cambrian, but nothing to cause them to do so – having a football pitch, a ball and 22 people does not ensure that a football match will take place.

This pushes the issue back, which ID theorists would like to present as a retreat, as hiding from the problem. The reality is that when you are concentrating on the Cambrian explosion you look at the stage which has been set and then analyse the changes. The environment is part of the stage, the organisms which preceded the radiation are part of it too, and the genetic toolkit is part as well. This is not to say that no new genes were necessary for the Cambrian explosion, but that it is not a major issue. The evolution of regulatory networks and of new genes is a separate question, which I get the impression that they know as it allows them to paint this picture of retreating evolutionary biologists. They can keep pushing back and back because ultimately they know that the origin of information goes back to the origin of life and that is where they truly set up camp, not the Cambrian explosion.

In summation, one tactic of the ID proponents is to try to sound original, when the reality is that the majority of their views on the Cambrian explosion are taken from actual researchers who accept evolution. They also complain repeatedly that they are being ignored, often because their personal favoured views are not being addressed. Finally, their issue is not really with the Cambrian explosion, but with the origins of information at life’s beginnings. The Cambrian explosion isn’t what they think it is, but as long as they continue to present it their way they will always feel ignored and as though experts are conceding to them. They will just persist in offering only criticisms and complaints.

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