Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Tangled Bank #67: Giving thanks for science

The Tangled Bank

Welcome to this Blog Carnival. Since I haven't had time to do much scientific blogging of my own, this is a good opportunity to catch up with other science bloggers' writing.

Looking complexity in the eye

What better way to begin this Carnival than with a reference to the man who came up with the image of the tangled bank in the first place. Halfway through the Origin of Species, Darwin raised the problem of the organs of extreme perfection. The first example he discussed was the eye. As usual, what he had to say on the subject was remarkably clear, sensible and, well, farsighted:
To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real [...]
The rest is well worth reading not least because most of Darwin's predictions have been borne out by the data. We have made spectacular progress towards solving even the problems he anticipated would be most difficult to address (e.g., "how a nerve comes to be sensitive to light"). Little did he know, however, that we would still be arguing with creationists over the eye a century and a half later. I suspect Darwin that would have appreciated the following articles, though:

  • Ian Musgrave, over at The Panda's Thumb explains why if
    the vertebrate eye is a product of intelligent design then it doesn't speak well to the skills of the designer. Don't you just wish you had some squid eyes?

  • Refusing to wallow in cephalopod envy for once, PZ Myers expanded on Ian's post by giving an overview of the diversity of eye types in animals. That he can write so beautifully about photoreceptors and opsins is an example to us all. As usual, contemplating the cellular and molecular details will provide no comfort for creationists.

  • Last month, Carl Zimmer wrote a wonderful piece for National Geographic on the evolution of organs of extreme perfection -- these days they are known, more prosaically, as complex structures. In his blog, Carl dared the Discovery Institute to respond. Dutifully, Casey Luskin obliged. In three parts! He should have known better: arguing with Carl when you know so little biology is a terrible idea.

Hip medicine

Here's another wonder of intelligent design: the human hip. Dr Kavokin tells us what can go wrong .

A fistful of dollars

Any scientist will tell you that one of the most unpleasant aspects of their work is the constant need to look for money to support their research. (I have met only one person who disagrees with that sentiment.) The NIH is promising to overhaul their procedures. Will it make things any smoother? Orac, perhaps the top NIH-funded science blogger around, gives us his first impressions.

Evolutionary sense and sensibility

No stranger to self-promotion blogging, I was pleased to see Massimo Pigliucci writing about his new book Making Sense of Evolution, written with the philosopher Jonathan Kaplan. Here he gives us a taste for their chapter on adaptive landscapes. I actually heard Kaplan give a very interesting talk about the same problem last year. I will definitely get the book now that it's out.

Sex and evolution

One of the reasons why natural selection is difficult to define and measure is recombination. Fortunately our understanding of the evolutionary consequences of recombination is improving. RPM discusses some recent research into the problem.

Getting old

Aging, like sex, raises some great evolutionary mysteries. If that doesn't ring enough Weismannian bells for you, check out Ouroboros' post on my favorite worm. Reason has been keeping up with some strange aging research from Russia.

Martin Rundkvist has been following in George W. Bush's footsteps. He shares his experiences at the Hanoi historical museum.

Heavenly creatures

Have you ever heard of a bufflehead? Just one of 10,000 birds...

Decidedly less cute are the saltwater crocodiles from the Northern Territory of Australia.

But you can trust humans to make life unpleasant for these great creatures. Here's what we're doing to the waterways of Western Maryland.

Unweaving the spectrum

Phil Plait shows us, once again, that physics too can be beautiful. Next time someone reminds you that "There are more things in heaven and earth [...] than are dreamt of in your philosophy" agree with them and send them this link.

Always Learning, a physician, shares some astrophysical wonder of his own.

But what else can you do with electromagnetic radiation? Past Lessons, Future Theories introduces xDNA.

Prickly science

A graduate student in the lab next door to mine has just had a good reason to celebrate: he's a coauthor in a paper that came out in last week's issue of Science. The only problem is that it's not easy to find him: he's coauthor number 109 out of 226. PZ Myers took a break from his favorite lophotrochozoans to explain why we should care about this deuterostome. And it's not for the obvious reasons.

Migrations points out a recent paper on the role of the Wnt/beta-catenin pathway in sea urchin development.


Hsien Hsien Lei discusses socialized health care in the genomics age over at Genetics and Health. I suspect these issues will keep coming back.

Good information theory, bad information theory

Those of you wondering what on earth this blog has to do with Newton may have noticed that the words "of information theory" more often than not follow the name of the great scientist around here. That's unfortunate. Well, it's happened again. There was Salvador Cordova, Dembski's co-blogger and a regular commenter here, happily babbling away about the great contributions of intelligent design creationism to science, in that alternate universe of his inhabited by such wondrous theories as the "fourth law of thermodynamics" and the "law of conservation of complex specified information", and Mark Chu-Carroll went and spoiled his fun. Bad news for uncommon descent indeed.


But there is actually a different reason for this blog's name: it's a reference to a classic Portuguese modernist poem. However, I was happy to find a surprising Newtonian connection in Lab Cat's exploration of the many uses of flaxseed.