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Archive for May, 2010


Charles Darwin, proponent of the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Nature has a brief and fascinating interview with evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson of New York’s Binghamton University. Dr. Wilson is a full time researcher, yet he also spends time injecting evolution into public policy debates. He advocates engaging the general public with evolutionary ideas, and giving evolutionary theories real world relevance for society.

Dr. Wilson’s ideas couldn’t come at a better time. Among Western nations, Americans are famously skeptical of evolution. It was only four years ago that a comprehensive review of surveys on public perceptions of evolution determined that less than half of Americans agreed with the assertion that human beings evolved from other animal species. A mere 14% of the general public believes that evolution is “definitely true.” Of all the Western countries surveyed, only Turkey had a population that was more wary of evolution, while Scandinavian countries had over three-quarters of their citizens accepting evolutionary theory.

Americans have unique historical and sociological reasons for their skepticism and hostility toward evolution. Many have theorized that the strong presence of Protestant fundamentalism in the American tradition decoupled religious learning from the major universities. As a result, whole Protestant groups educated and cultivated clergy and congregations hostile to mainstream Western education ideals and standards, especially in regard to the natural sciences. In addition, in recent decades, the political climate in the United States has added fuel to the notion of evolution as a dangerous, foolhardy, and heretical falsehood. President Reagan famously littered some campaign speeches with the line, “I have no chimpanzees in my family,” to ridicule a whole field of biological study. Some argue that the link between the political right in the United States with hostility toward evolutionary theory was cemented to curry favor among religious fundamentalists. If so, it is an alliance that is noticeably absent in other Western countries. In much of Europe and Japan, far-right political groups are just as a likely to accept evolutionary theory as other segments of the population.

Another reason the American public is so hostile to evolution may be the poor state of scientific literacy in general in the United States. Most Americans have only a minimal scientific education up through high school, barely touching on subjects like evolution, genetics, and inheritance. Beyond high school, most Americans don’t further their scientific education at all. Dr. Wilson’s group at Binghamton University is researching ways to inject evolution back into the day-to-day lives of ordinary Americans. It will be interesting to see if these methods bear fruit, especially since Dr. Wilson himself believes his methods of engagement may not please a prominent pro-evolution group: atheists.

Dr. Wilson is an atheist himself, but does not agree with many “new atheists” who take an openly hostile view to all religious belief. In fact, part of Dr. Wilson’s work looks at the group benefits of religious belief from an evolutionary perspective.

To learn more, read Dr. Wilson’s whole interview with Nature.

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Here’s something you’ll probably never see again: the space shuttle Atlantis landing at the Kennedy Space Center at the completion of mission STS-132. Atlantis had spent nearly two weeks in space, delivering supplies and a new research module to the International Space Station and conducting a few scientific experiments.

NASA’s wildly successful space shuttle program has only two more missions left before the fleet is retired. Mission STS-132 was Atlantis‘ final scheduled mission, and orbiters Endeavour and Discovery will each make their own trips to the International Space Station before the end of the year.

Thus, for only two more times will we see space shuttles launch from Cape Canaveral, and return home. And for only two more times will we be able to browse NASA’s audio files of the infamous “wake-up calls” used to rouse astronauts at the beginning of each day in outer space. Astronaut families choose one or two special songs to use to wake up the astronauts each morning. For Atlantis‘ final mission, “wake-up call” songs included “Sweet Home Alabama” (my favorite on the list) and the theme from Wallace and Gromit. You can find a full list of wake-up call songs from STS-132 here, and an index to all space shuttle mission wake-up calls (as well as mission images and videos) here.

Finally, watch Atlantis return home for the last time. I’m only sorry I missed seeing it live.

Image provided courtesy of NASA and Ben Cooper. Video provided courtesy of NASA.

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The western honeybee, Apis mellifera.

Scientists from the United States Department of Agriculture announced at a recent meeting that they have identified the primary pathogens associated with honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). American beekeepers first reported CCD in 2007, and the implications are dire. Honeybees (Apis mellifera) are major crop pollinators. In California alone, their commercial crop value easily exceeds $1.5 billion annually. Though CCD has only been recognized for a few years, the potential loss of honeybees as crop pollinators sent scientists scrambling to determine the cause of this odd and devastating syndrome.
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A northern gannet, covered in thick brown oil, lies dead on a beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana. Northern gannets are usually white.

Over a month after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico, oil continues to gush from its open well. This week, scientists and government officials announced that oil has fouled Louisiana marshlands and coastal habitats along the massive Mississippi River delta. The extent of the destruction and magnitude of the loss of won’t be known for some time. However, the bodies continue to mount, and many are questioning whether such complex marshlands can ever recover from such a catastrophe. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, take a look at the image below of Louisiana’s irreplaceable coastal marshes, now coated in thick brown oil.

In the meantime, the federal government has admitted that it does not have enough equipment and experts to take over BP’s failed attempts to stop the flow of oil from the untapped well or contain the spill. Thus, for now, BP remains in charge of the spill itself, while states along the Gulf of Mexico try in vain to protect precious miles of shoreline.

First image provided courtesy of Sean Gardner and Reuters. Second image provided courtesy of Gerald Herbert and the Associated Press.

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National Public Radio has a fantastic set of stories out this morning about the growing controversy surrounding Corexit, the chemical BP is using to disperse oil pouring form the uncapped well of the sunken Deepwater Horizon rig. In short, BP has been pouring Corexit into the Gulf of Mexico to the tune of tens of thousands of gallons each day to help disperse the thick oil. However, we simply do not know the consequences of long-term Corexit toxicity to ocean life — everything from the fish we eat to the microbes which form the basis of ocean ecosystems.

The concern isn’t that Corexit itself will kill all ocean life. Instead, the real fear is that Corexit will act as an endocrine disruptor on marine life. Endocrine disruptors are compounds that mimic biological hormones. They get into the body, chemically masquerade as hormones, and disrupt the body’s natural signaling processes. Hormones govern everything from metabolism to sexual development — so, endocrine disruptors in the environment have the potential to devastate whole ecosystems, even in small doses. Plus, endocrine disruptors can settle into the environment and persist for decades, as we’re seeing with the many endocrine disruptors leaching out from today’s plastic compounds.  We’re not sure what the effects of these endocrine disruptors will be for tomorrow’s world.

Thus, in trying to lessen the impact form one environmental catastrophe, BP may be unleashing another. Only time and research will tell.

Both of these stories from NPR delve into further details. The second link is an audio file to a terrific interview with Jon Hamilton, one of NPR’s science correspondents.

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The orca, Orcinus orca, is the “official marine mammal of the State of Washington.” It’s status is even preserved in the Revised Code of Washington. Orcas obtained this rare honor as a symbol of the State of Washington in 2005, when a group of second grade students from Oak Harbor, Washington successfully lobbied the Washington Legislature.

When I was a little kid in the American south and midwest, everyone called them “killer whales.” In the Pacific Northwest, the name orca is preferred in the zeitgeist. However, these marine mammals are not just known in my current home. They swim in every ocean, from the tropics to the polar seas.
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Scientists from the Maryland and California-based J. Craig Venter Institute announced today that they successfully created a partially synthetic lifeform. <a href="Their efforts appear in the journal Science, and include a detailed description of the steps they took to create life.

The lifeform in question is a single-celled bacterium called Mycoplasma mycoides. A bacterial cell, like all living organisms, stores “instructions” or “blueprints” for making and maintaining itself in the form of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). DNA is the genome of an organism — it is a long strand of chemicals stored within living cells. In single-celled organisms like bacteria, each cell is an individual, and each cell contains a copy of the genome. The instructions for making and maintaining the cell are “read” from the genome by the cell. Thus, the complex chemicals and molecules that cells make to do work, maintain integrity, survive, and reproduce are all made using these DNA-based “instructions.” When a cell divides, DNA is copied, so that each daughter cell has a complete copy of the genome.

A colony of Mycoplasma mycoides cells.

I harp so much on DNA because much of the work done by the J. Craig Venter Institute centers on the Mycoplasma mycoides genome. Scientists had already “read” the full chemical sequence of the DNA strand (also known as the complete genome sequence) from Mycoplasma mycoides. Researchers at the Venter Institute set out to use that known Mycoplasma mycoides genome sequence to create their own Mycoplasma mycoides cell from scratch.
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