What great timing, I just found out about a musical science parody featuring evolution and biology and learned of the latest news about the study of evolution on one of the islands in the Galapagos (where Charles Darwin made some of his observations). Thanks to Stacey Johnson for her November 24, 2017 posting on the Signals blog for featuring Evo-Devo (Despacito Biology Parody), an A Capella Science music video from Tim Blais,
The arrival 36 years ago of a strange bird to a remote island in the Galapagos archipelago has provided direct genetic evidence of a novel way in which new species arise.
In this week’s issue of the journal Science, researchers from Princeton University and Uppsala University in Sweden report that the newcomer belonging to one species mated with a member of another species resident on the island, giving rise to a new species that today consists of roughly 30 individuals.
The study comes from work conducted on Darwin’s finches, which live on the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean. The remote location has enabled researchers to study the evolution of biodiversity due to natural selection.
The direct observation of the origin of this new species occurred during field work carried out over the last four decades by B. Rosemary and Peter Grant, two scientists from Princeton, on the small island of Daphne Major.
“The novelty of this study is that we can follow the emergence of new species in the wild,” said B. Rosemary Grant, a senior research biologist, emeritus, and a senior biologist in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. “Through our work on Daphne Major, we were able to observe the pairing up of two birds from different species and then follow what happened to see how speciation occurred.”
In 1981, a graduate student working with the Grants on Daphne Major noticed the newcomer, a male that sang an unusual song and was much larger in body and beak size than the three resident species of birds on the island.
“We didn’t see him fly in from over the sea, but we noticed him shortly after he arrived. He was so different from the other birds that we knew he did not hatch from an egg on Daphne Major,” said Peter Grant, the Class of 1877 Professor of Zoology, Emeritus, and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, emeritus.
The researchers took a blood sample and released the bird, which later bred with a resident medium ground finch of the species Geospiz fortis, initiating a new lineage. The Grants and their research team followed the new “Big Bird lineage” for six generations, taking blood samples for use in genetic analysis.
In the current study, researchers from Uppsala University analyzed DNA collected from the parent birds and their offspring over the years. The investigators discovered that the original male parent was a large cactus finch of the species Geospiza conirostris from Española island, which is more than 100 kilometers (about 62 miles) to the southeast in the archipelago.
The remarkable distance meant that the male finch was not able to return home to mate with a member of his own species and so chose a mate from among the three species already on Daphne Major. This reproductive isolation is considered a critical step in the development of a new species when two separate species interbreed.
The offspring were also reproductively isolated because their song, which is used to attract mates, was unusual and failed to attract females from the resident species. The offspring also differed from the resident species in beak size and shape, which is a major cue for mate choice. As a result, the offspring mated with members of their own lineage, strengthening the development of the new species.
Researchers previously assumed that the formation of a new species takes a very long time, but in the Big Bird lineage it happened in just two generations, according to observations made by the Grants in the field in combination with the genetic studies.
All 18 species of Darwin’s finches derived from a single ancestral species that colonized the Galápagos about one to two million years ago. The finches have since diversified into different species, and changes in beak shape and size have allowed different species to utilize different food sources on the Galápagos. A critical requirement for speciation to occur through hybridization of two distinct species is that the new lineage must be ecologically competitive — that is, good at competing for food and other resources with the other species — and this has been the case for the Big Bird lineage.
“It is very striking that when we compare the size and shape of the Big Bird beaks with the beak morphologies of the other three species inhabiting Daphne Major, the Big Birds occupy their own niche in the beak morphology space,” said Sangeet Lamichhaney, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University and the first author on the study. “Thus, the combination of gene variants contributed from the two interbreeding species in combination with natural selection led to the evolution of a beak morphology that was competitive and unique.”
The definition of a species has traditionally included the inability to produce fully fertile progeny from interbreeding species, as is the case for the horse and the donkey, for example. However, in recent years it has become clear that some closely related species, which normally avoid breeding with each other, do indeed produce offspring that can pass genes to subsequent generations. The authors of the study have previously reported that there has been a considerable amount of gene flow among species of Darwin’s finches over the last several thousands of years.
One of the most striking aspects of this study is that hybridization between two distinct species led to the development of a new lineage that after only two generations behaved as any other species of Darwin’s finches, explained Leif Andersson, a professor at Uppsala University who is also affiliated with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Texas A&M University. “A naturalist who came to Daphne Major without knowing that this lineage arose very recently would have recognized this lineage as one of the four species on the island. This clearly demonstrates the value of long-running field studies,” he said.
It is likely that new lineages like the Big Birds have originated many times during the evolution of Darwin’s finches, according to the authors. The majority of these lineages have gone extinct but some may have led to the evolution of contemporary species. “We have no indication about the long-term survival of the Big Bird lineage, but it has the potential to become a success, and it provides a beautiful example of one way in which speciation occurs,” said Andersson. “Charles Darwin would have been excited to read this paper.”
On the first day of the 2017 Canadian Science Policy Conference (Nov. 1 -3, 2017 in Ottawa, Ontario), Governor General Julie Payette’s speech encouraged listeners to grapple with science deniers, fake news, and more (from a Nov. 2, 2017 article by Mia Rabson in the Huffington Post, Canada edition),
Payette was the keynote speaker at the ninth annual Canadian Science Policy Convention in Ottawa Wednesday night [Nov. 1, 2017] where she urged her friends and former colleagues to take responsibility to shut down the misinformation about everything from health and medicine to climate change and even horoscopes that has flourished with the explosion of digital media.
“Can you believe that still today in learned society, in houses of government, unfortunately, we’re still debating and still questioning whether humans have a role in the Earth warming up or whether even the Earth is warming up, period,” she asked, her voice incredulous.
She generated giggles and even some guffaws from the audience when she said too many people still believe “taking a sugar pill will cure cancer if you will it good enough and that your future and every single one of the people here’s personalities can be determined by looking at planets coming in front of invented constellations.”
Payette was trained as a computer engineer and later became an astronaut and licensed pilot and in 1999 was the first Canadian to board the International Space Station.
Mia Rabson in another Nov. 2, 2017 article (this time for 680news.com) presents responses to the speech from various interested parties,
According to popular Canadian astrologer Georgia Nicols, Canada’s Governor General should be doing what she can to “keep the peace” with loved ones today and avoid the “planetary vibe” that is urging people to engage in power struggles and disputes.
The advice, contained in Julie Payette’s Nov. 2  horoscope on Nicols’ website, might have come a day late, though Payette likely wouldn’t have listened to it anyway.
The Governor General made clear in a speech to scientists at an Ottawa convention Wednesday she has a very low opinion of the validity of horoscopes, people who believe in creationism or those who don’t believe in climate change.
Emmett Macfarlane, a political professor at the University of Waterloo said nothing stops a governor general from stating opinions and while there have been unwritten traditions against it, Payette’s most recent predecessors did not always hold their tongues.
Conservative political strategist Alise Mills said Payette went way over the line with her speech, which she characterized as not only political but “mean-spirited.”
“I definitely agree science is key but I think there is a better way to do that without making fun of other people,” Mills said.
There isn’t a lot of data on horoscope and astrology beliefs in Canada but a 2005 Gallup poll suggested around one in four Canadians believed in astrology.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t seem to have any issue with what Payette said, saying his government and Canadians understand the value of science.
Mills said Payette wasn’t just promoting science, she was mocking people with religious beliefs, and specifically, evangelical Christians who don’t believe evolutionary science.
Astrologer Nicols said she had “no wish to take on a woman who is as accomplished as Julie Payette,” whom she notes is a “feisty Libra with three planets in Scorpio.”
But she did suggest Payette would be better to stick to what she knows.
“Astrology is not the stuff of horoscopes in newspapers, albeit I do write them,” wrote Nicols in an e-mail. “It is actually a complex study based on mathematics. Not fairy dust falling from the stars.”
There is one thing I find a bit surprising, Payette doesn’t seem to have taken on the vaccination issue. In any event, it looks like the conference had an exciting start.
Helaine Becker has launched a new children’s science book incorporating monsters with science. The title, unsurprisingly, is: ‘Monster Science’. Here’s more about the book from Helaine’s Oct. 14, 2016 post on Sci/Why where she shares two reviews,
“From Frankenstein’s creation to Nessie, Becker uses the creatures of our scariest stories as a springboard for an introduction to the scientific understandings that might make such creatures possible—or impossible. In addition to man-made monsters and legendary sea creatures, she covers vampires, zombies, werewolves, and wild, humanlike creatures like Bigfoot. Chapter by chapter, she provides references from literature, film, and popular culture, including a bit of science, a bit of history, and a plentiful helping of humor. She includes numerous monster facts, suggests weapons of defense, and concludes each section with a test-yourself quiz. Science topics covered range widely: electricity, genetic engineering, “demonic diseases,” the nature of our blood and the circulatory system, the possibility of immortality, animal classification, evolution, cannibalism, optical illusions, heredity, hoaxes, and the very real profession of cryptozoology, or the search for hitherto unidentified creatures. … Kirkus
Then, there’s this one,
“A highlight of this work is its exploration of the often symbiotic relationship between culture and science; figures such as Shelley, John Polidori (The Vampyre), and filmmaker George Romero (Night of the Living Dead) merged cultural fascination with scientific development to create truly inspiring works and further public interest in science…School Library Journal
Interview with Helaine Becker
Not to be confused with ‘Interview with a vampire’, this one is not novel-length and includes a scoop about an upcoming book in 2017,
Were you surprised by anything when you were researching and/or witting the book?
I learned so much while writing Monster Science – it’s one of the reasons I enjoy writing nonfiction, especially for kids. I always turn up fascinating stuff. I was surprised to learn that werewolves were rounded up and burned at the stake, just like witches, during the period of the Inquisition. Werewolves, it turns out, were thought to be witches – usually male ones – who could shape shift.
My fave fact of all is that vampires would still have to eat their vegetables.
Did you have to leave any monsters/pop culture references/science out of the book? And, why?
Children’s books have very tight space constraints, but my research is comprehensive and complete. That means we have to pick and choose what stays in. It’s gotta be the very best! I work closely with my editors on this, and sometimes we have, shall we say, “heated” discussions.” For Monster Science, I was particularly sorry to see the fascinating back story of the mad scientist trope end up with a stake in its heart.
Did you have a favourite monster before you started? If so, has your favourite changed? Or if you didn’t have one before writing the book, haveyou since developed a favourite monster?
I’ve had an uneasy relationship with vampires from the age of about 7, after watching an episode of Gilligan’s Island. It featured a “humorous” dream sequence with Gilligan as the vampire. I failed to see the humor at that tender age, and was terrified out of my socks. And anyone remember the original Dark Shadows? Barnabus Collins? Yeah. That show should have never been on in the afternoon. I slept with the blankies up to my ears until my mid-thirties. (Who am I kidding? I still do!)
Are you hoping to tie this book into the Frankenstein bicentennial celebrations?
Illustrated children’s books have very long time lines from concept to finished book. I wrote Monster Science several years ago, before I had any notion of Frankenstein bicentennials. But now that we’ve arrived at this auspicious date, I’m excited! I’d love to participate in some way. I will put on my zzz zzzz zzzt thinking cap.
Where can your fans come to a reading or some other event?
I do dozens of school visits and festival events every year. Some of them might be focused on a specific book, like Monster Science, but most usually feature discussions around several of my titles. This holiday season, for example, I will be doing events around my latest picture book, a very Canadian Christmas-themed title called Deck the Halls. It’s the third in a very popular series. Anyone can drop in to the Sherway Gardens branch of Indigo Book Store [in Toronto] at noon on Sunday, Dec. 4 , to take part in that.
I’ll be doing many events in association with the Forest of Reading, one of North America’s largest children’s choice award programs this spring. More than 250,000 children participate! I am honored to have two science-related books nominated this year, Worms for Breakfast: How to Feed a Zoo (Owlkids) and Everything: Space (National Geographic Kids). I will also be the keynote at the Killaloe Literary Festival in beautiful northern Ontario at the end of May. Best place to look for my latest book and schedule info is my blog, http://helainebecker.blogspot.ca/.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
For insiders only: Coming soon! Look for my upcoming picture book biography of William Playfair, the Victorian era scoundrel who single-handedly invented the field of infographics. It’s called Lines, Bars and Circles and will be published by Kids Can Press early in 2017.
Thank you, Helaine! (I usually don’t get funny interviews. It makes for a good change of pace.)
The story of science in the Muslim world is extraordinary, influencing science to this day, and is not well known even within its own community. The days when Muslim or Islamic scientists led the world are long gone and that is cause for concern. An Oct. 29, 2015 Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology press release on EurekAlert argues that universities in Muslim countries must reinvent themselves to transform society and achieve scientific excellence,
A Task Force of international experts, formed by the Muslim World Science Initiative, today released a report [Science at Universities of the Muslim World] on the state of science at universities of the Muslim world.
To assess the state of science at universities of the Muslim world, the Task Force reviewed the rankings of Muslim-world’s universities globally, scientific production (number of papers published and citations), the level of spending on research and development (R&D), female participation in the scientific workforce, and other indicators.
The results were compared to those of countries deemed comparable in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, e.g. Brazil, Israel, Spain, South Africa, and South Korea.
The Task Force noted recent improvements in scientific publishing across a number of countries and a relatively healthy gender ratio among university students, even though the overall state of science in the Muslim World remains ‘poor,’ as depicted by
the disproportionately small number of Nobel Laureates
the small number of universities in top global rankings
the low spending on R&D, and
the abysmal performance of pre-university students on math and science tests
Seeking to assess if universities were the ‘main culprits’ in this sorry state of affairs, the Task Force highlighted significant challenges at the Universities of the Muslim World.
In particular, the Task Force lamented the fact that science education in most Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) member countries was extremely narrow in focus and did little to enable students to think critically, especially beyond their respective domains of specialty.
The Task Force calls for broad liberal education for scientists and engineers to enable them to function effectively in addressing complex multi-disciplinary challenges that the world faces today.
The Task Force also noted that self-censorship was often practiced in the selection of topics to be taught, particularly regarding controversial subjects such as the theory of evolution.
The Task Force called for the introduction and systematic study of philosophy of science and history of the sciences of the Muslim ‘Golden Age’ and beyond for students to navigate and develop a perspective on these difficult disciplinary boundaries and overlaps. The language of instruction also created significant challenges.
Faculty members were also ill-trained to teach using cutting-edge methods such as inquiry-based science education and had little autonomy to innovate.
While the Task Force called for greater autonomy for the universities, it also emphasized that they must become meritocracies and aspire for true scientific excellence rather than playing for temporary gains in numbers or rankings. It also calls for zero tolerance on plagiarism and other forms of academic misconduct.
The Report of the Task Force includes: a foreword by the Chair, Tan Sri Zakri Abdul Hamid, the main assessment and recommendations, and individual essays written by the Task Force members on issues, including
Science, Society & the University
Are universities of the Muslim world helping spread a culture of science through society?
Should Religion Be Kept Out of the Science Classroom?
STEM Education and the Muslim Gender Divide and
The Need of Liberal Education for Science and Engineering
The Task Force is putting out an open call for universities across the Muslim world to join a voluntary Network of Excellence of Universities for Science (NEXUS), to be launched early next year.
This peer group will be managed by the task force and housed in Tan Sri Zakri’s office. NEXUS will run summer schools for university administrators, monitor the progress of reforms at participating universities, and issue a peer report card that will assess the performance of the universities in meeting milestones, thus recognizing and inspiring further improvements. True transformation will require much broader action from ministries, regulators and funding agencies, and these may be the most resistant to change.
Releasing the Report of the Task Force, Tan Sri Zakri Abdul Hamid stressed that “universities must reinvent themselves to lead the scientific reforms in the Muslim World, and as they do so they must embrace key ideas of merit and transparency, engagement with society, and pedagogical and curricular innovation.”
Professor Nidhal Guessoum, the Task Force’s Convenor, noted that “Task Force members strongly believe that the most appropriate venue for action on our recommendations is the university itself. The most essential ingredient in creating excellence in science and science teaching at a university is a realization, within a university’s highest leadership and its faculty, of the need to give up the old and dated ways, renew the purpose, and re-write the genetic code of their university.
Dr. Athar Osama, the Director of the Project noted that “the purpose of Muslim World Science Initiative is to jumpstart a dialogue within the society on critical issues at the intersection of science, society, and Islam. The Task Force has done a commendable job in laying the groundwork for a very important conversation about our universities.”
The divide between science/technology/engineering/mathematics (STEM) education and other fields of interest such as social sciences, the arts, and the humanities may be larger in the Islamic world (and to some extent reversed with humanities looking down on science) but it is a problem elsewhere, often expressed as a form of snobbery, as I alluded to in my Aug. 7, 2015 posting titled: Science snobbery and the problem of accessibility.
An Oct. 28, 2015 Nature essay about Islam, science, and the report by Nidhal Guessou and Athar Osama (two members of the Task Force; Note: Links have been removed) provides more context,
The Islamic civilization lays claim to the world’s oldest continually operational university. The University of Qarawiyyin was founded in Fes, Morocco, in ad 859, at the beginning of an Islamic Golden Age. Despite such auspicious beginnings, universities in the region are now in dire straits, as demonstrated by a report we have authored, released this week (see go.nature.com/korli3).
The 57 countries of the Muslim world — those with a Muslim-majority population, and part of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) — are home to nearly 25% of the world’s people. But as of 2012, they had contributed only 1.6% of the world’s patents, 6% of its academic publications, and 2.4% of the global research expenditure1, 2.
The authors note problems and at least one success with regard to curriculum (from the Nature essay; Note: Links have been removed),
Science classes themselves have serious problems. The textbooks used in OIC universities are often imported from the United States or Europe. Although the content is of a high standard, they assume a Western experience and use English or French as the language of instruction. This disadvantages many students, and creates a disconnect between their education and culture. To encourage the production of higher-quality, local textbooks and other academic material, universities need to reward staff for producing these at least as much as they do for research publication.
Some basic facts are seen as controversial, and marginalized. Evolution, for example, is usually taught only to biology students, often as “a theory”, and is rarely connected to the rest of the body of knowledge. One ongoing study has found, for example, that most Malaysian physicians and medical students reject evolution (see go.nature.com/38cswo). Evolution needs to be taught widely and shown to be compatible with Islam and its culture6. Teaching the philosophy and history of science would help, too.
The global consensus is that enquiry-based science education fosters the deepest understanding of scientific concepts and laws. But in most OIC universities, lecture-based teaching still prevails. Exceptions are rare. One is the Petroleum Institute, an engineering university in Abu Dhabi, UAE, where the faculty has created a hands-on experience with positive results on student interest and enrolment, particularly of women.
For anyone interested in the full report, it can be requested from the Muslim Science website.
One final comment, here’s the list of task force members in the Oct. 29, 2015 news release which includes someone from Mauritius (my father was born there),
Tan Sri Zakri Abdul Hamid, Science Advisor to Prime Minister of Malaysia, Chair of the Task Force on Science at the Universities of the Muslim World
Prof. Nidhal Guessoum, American University of Sharjah, UAE, Convenor of the Task Force on Science at Universities of the Muslim World
Dr. Mohammad Yusoff Sulaiman, President and CEO, MiGHT, Malaysia, Co-Convenor of the Task Force on Science at Universities of the Muslim World.
Dr. Moneef Zou’bi, Executive Director, Islamic World Academy of Science (IAS)
Prof. Adil Najam, Dean Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University and former Vice Chancellor, Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)
Prof. Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, Fellow of IAS, President of the Republic of Mauritius, and Professor at University of Mauritius
Prof. Mustafa El-Tayeb, President , Future University, Khartoum, Sudan
Prof. Abdur Razak Dzulkifli, President of International Association of Universities (IAU), and former Vice Chancellor USM, Malaysia
Dr. Nadia Alhasani, Dean of Student Life (formerly Dean of Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE), The Petroleum Institute, Abu Dhabi, UAE
Prof. Jamal Mimouni, Professor, University of Constantine-1, Algeria
Dr. Dato Lee Yee Cheong, Chair ISTIC Governing Board / Chair IAP SEP Global Council
Prof. Michael Reiss, Professor of Science Education, UCL Institute of Education, University College, London, Expert Advisor to the Muslim-Science.Com Task Force on Science at Universities of the Muslim World
Prof. Bruce Alberts, Professor of Biochemistry, University of California, San Francisco; President Emeritus, National Academy of Sciences, and Recipient, 2014 US Presidential Medal of Science, Expert Advisor to the Muslim-Science.Com Task Force on Science at Universities of the Muslim World
Professor Shoaib S. H. Zaidi, Professor and Dean of School of Sciences and Engineering, Habib University, Karachi
Dr. Athar Osama, Founder Muslim World Science Initiative, and Project Director of the Task Forces Project.
This show is still making its way around the world with the latest stop, as of Oct. 20, 2015, at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt.
A Jan. 21, 2010 article by Nick Higham and Margaret Ryan for BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) news online describes some of the exhibit highlights,
From about 700 to 1700, many of history’s finest scientists and technologists were to be found in the Muslim world.
In Christian Europe the light of scientific inquiry had largely been extinguished with the collapse of the Roman empire. But it survived, and indeed blazed brightly, elsewhere.
From Moorish Spain across North Africa to Damascus, Baghdad, Persia and all the way to India, scientists in the Muslim world were at the forefront of developments in medicine, astronomy, engineering, hydraulics, mathematics, chemistry, map-making and exploration.
Salim Al-Hassani, a former professor of engineering at Umist (University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology) is a moving force behind the exhibition, 1001 Inventions.
Visitors to the exhibition will be greeted by a 20 ft high replica of a spectacular clock designed in 1206 by the inventor Al-Jazari.
It incorporates elements from many cultures, representing the different cultural and scientific traditions which combined and flowed through the Muslim world.
The clock’s base is an elephant, representing India; inside the elephant the water-driven works of the clock derive from ancient Greece.
A Chinese dragon swings down from the top of the clock to mark the hours. At the top is a phoenix, representing ancient Egypt.
Sitting astride the elephant and inside the framework of the clock are automata, or puppets, wearing Arab turbans.
Elsewhere in the exhibition are displays devoted to water power, the spread of education (one of the world’s first universities was founded by a Muslim woman, Fatima al-Fihri), Muslim architecture and its influence on the modern world and Muslim explorers and geographers.
There is a display of 10th Century surgeons’ instruments, a lifesize model of a man called Abbas ibn Firnas, allegedly the first person to have flown with wings, and a model of the vast 100 yard-long junk commanded by the Muslim Chinese navigator, Zheng He.
The description of the exhibition items is compelling.
Science and the modern world debate (Humanism and Islam)
Yasmin Khan has written up a transcript of sorts in a Nov. 6, 2015 posting on the Guardian science blogs about a science debate (which took place Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015 in London, UK) where Humanist and Islamic perspectives were being discussed (Note: Links have been removed),
Two important figures came head-to-head at Conway Hall, to discuss Islamic versus Humanist perspectives on science and the modern world. Jim Al-Khalili made the final public appearance of his term as president of the British Humanist Association during this stimulating, and at times provoking, debate with Ziauddin Sardar, chair of the Muslim Institute.
Al-Khalili advocated the values of the European Enlightenment, arguing that ever since the “Age of Reason” took hold during the 18th century, Humanists have looked to science instead of religion to explore and comprehend the world. Sardar upheld the view that it is the combination of faith and reason that offers a fuller understanding of the world, maintaining that it was this worldview that enabled the development of science in the Islamic golden Age.
A practising Muslim, Sardar is on an independent mission to promote rational, considered thought in interpreting the Qur’an. He explained that when he came to the UK from Pakistan, he found comfort in the familiar language of mathematics, which set him on a trajectory to train as a physicist: “God doesn’t need me, I need him. It makes me a better person and a better scientist”, he said.
In short, Sardar’s view is that although human knowledge at times converges with the Qur’an, the text should certainly not be treated as a scientific encyclopaedia. In support of this view, Sardar lamented the emergence of the I’jaz movement, which insists the Qur’an contains descriptions of modern scientific phenomena ranging from quantum mechanics to accurate descriptions of the stages of embryology and geology. In Sardar’s opinion, this stems from insecurity and a personal need to vindicate Islam to others.
Jim Al-Khalili agreed that ascribing literal meanings to religious texts can be perilous and that these verses should be interpreted more metaphorically. Likewise, when Einstein famously said “God does not play dice” he was using a figure of speech to acknowledge that there are things we don’t yet understand but this shouldn’t stop us from trying to find out more.
Whilst Al-Khalili is a staunch atheist, he adopts what he describes as an “accommodationist” approach in his interactions with people of religious faith: “I don’t think people who believe in God are irrational, I just don’t see a need to believe there is a purpose for why things are the way they are.” Born in Bagdad, Al-Khalili grew up in Iraq. His mother was Christian and his father was Shia, but he never heard them quarrel about religion. By the time he reached his teens he felt that he had distanced himself from needing any form of spirituality and his subsequent scientific training cemented this worldview. He asserted that his core values are empathy, humility and respect, without being driven by a reward in an afterlife: “It’s not just people of religious faith that have a moral compass – morality is what makes us human.”
I encourage you to read Khan’s piece (Nov. 6, 2015 posting) in its entirety as she provides historical and contemporary context to what seems to have been a fascinating and nuanced debate. Plus, there’s a bit of a bonus at the end where Khan is described as the producer of Sindbad Sci-Fi, a website where they are Reimagining Arab Science Fiction. From the website’s About page,
Sindbad Sci-Fi is an initiative for spurring the discovery of and engagement with Arab Science Fiction through dialogue. Our aim is to sustain a growing community of interest through brokering face-to-face and online discussion, building new partnerships and project collaborations along the way.
Many of us know and love Sindbad the sailor as the fictional sailor from the Arabian Book of OneThousand and One Nights, considered as being an early composite work of proto-science fiction and fantasy. His extraordinary voyages led him to adventures in magical places whilst meeting monsters and encountering supernatural phenomena.
Sindbad Sci-Fi is reviving Sindbad’s adventurous spirit for exploration and discovery. Join us as we continue star trekking across the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and beyond. Together, we will boldly go where no one else has gone before!
I’m pretty sure somebody associated with this site is a Star Trek fan.
The 2015 International Symposium on Electronic Arts (or ISEA 2015) held in Vancouver ended yesterday, Aug. 19, 2015. It was quite an experience both as a participant and as a presenter (mentioned in my Aug. 14, 2015 posting, Sneak peek: Steep (1): a digital poetry of gold nanoparticles). Both this ISEA and the one I attended previously in 2009 (Belfast, Northern Ireland, and Dublin, Ireland) were jampacked with sessions, keynote addresses, special events, and exhibitions of various artworks. Exhilarating and exhausting, that is the ISEA experience for me and just about anyone else I talked to here in Vancouver (Canada). In terms of organization, I have to give props to the Irish. Unfortunately, the Vancouver team didn’t seem to have given their volunteers any training and technical difficulties abounded. Basics such as having a poster outside a room noting what session was taking place, signage indicating which artist’s work was being featured, and good technical support (my guy managed to plug in a few things but seemed disinclined or perhaps didn’t have the technical expertise (?) to troubleshoot prior to the presentation) seemed elusive (a keynote presentation had to be moved due to technical requirements [!] plus no one told the volunteer staff who consequently misdirected people). Ooops.
Despite the difficulties, people remained enthusiastic and that’s a tribute to both the participants and, importantly, the organizers. The Vancouver ISEA was a huge undertaking with over 1000 presentation submissions made and over 1800 art work submissions. They had 900+ register and were the first ISEA able to offer payment to artists for their installations. Bravo to Philippe Pasquier, Thecla Schiphorst, Kate Armstrong, Malcolm Levy, and all the others who worked hard to pull this off.
Moving on to ‘I’, while the theme for ISEA 2015 was Disruption, I noticed a number of presentations focused on biology and on networks (in particular, generative networks). In some ways this parallels what’s happening in the sciences where more notice is being given to networks and network communications of all sorts. For example, there’s an Aug. 19, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily suggesting that our use of the pronoun ‘I’ may become outdated. What we consider to be an individual may be better understood as a host for a number of communities or networks,
Recent microbiological research has shown that thinking of plants and animals, including humans, as autonomous individuals is a serious over-simplification.
A series of groundbreaking studies have revealed that what we have always thought of as individuals are actually “biomolecular networks” that consist of visible hosts plus millions of invisible microbes that have a significant effect on how the host develops, the diseases it catches, how it behaves and possibly even its social interactions.
“It’s a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts,” said Seth Bordenstein, associate professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt University, who has contributed to the body of scientific knowledge that is pointing to the conclusion that symbiotic microbes play a fundamental role in virtually all aspects of plant and animal biology, including the origin of new species.
In this case, the parts are the host and its genome plus the thousands of different species of bacteria living in or on the host, along with all their genomes, collectively known as the microbiome. (The host is something like the tip of the iceberg while the bacteria are like the part of the iceberg that is underwater: Nine out of every 10 cells in plant and animal bodies are bacterial. But bacterial cells are so much smaller than host cells that they have generally gone unnoticed.)
Microbiologists have coined new terms for these collective entities — holobiont — and for their genomes — hologenome. “These terms are needed to define the assemblage of organisms that makes up the so-called individual,” said Bordenstein.
In the article “Host Biology in Light of the Microbiome: Ten Principles of Holobionts and Hologenomes” published online Aug. 18  in the open access journal PLOS Biology, Bordenstein and his colleague Kevin Theis from the University of Michigan take the general concepts involved in this new paradigm and break them down into underlying principles that apply to the entire field of biology.
They make specific and refutable predictions based on these principles and call for other biologists to test them theoretically and experimentally.
“One of the basic expectations from this conceptual framework is that animal and plant experiments that do not account for what is happening at the microbiological level will be incomplete and, in some cases, will be misleading as well,” said Bordenstein.
The first principle they advance is that holobionts and hologenomes are fundamental units of biological organization.
Another is that evolutionary forces such as natural selection and drift may act on the hologenome not just on the genome. So mutations in the microbiome that affect the fitness of a holobiont are just as important as mutations in the host’s genome. However, they argue that this does not change the basic rules of evolution but simply upgrades the types of biological units that the rules may act upon.
Although it does not change the basic rules of evolution, holobionts do have a way to respond to environmental challenges that is not available to individual organisms: They can alter the composition of their bacterial communities. For example, if a holobiont is attacked by a pathogen that the host cannot defend against, another symbiont may fulfill the job by manufacturing a toxin that can kill the invader. In this light, the microbes are as much part of the holobiont immune system as the host immune genes themselves.
According to Bordenstein, these ideas are gaining acceptance in the microbiology community. At the American Society of Microbiology General Meeting in June , he convened the inaugural session on “Holobionts and Their Hologenomes” and ASM’s flagship journal mBio plans to publish a special issue on the topic in the coming year. [emphases are mine]
However, adoption of these ideas has been slower in other fields.
“Currently, the field of biology has reached an inflection point. The silos of microbiology, zoology and botany are breaking down and we hope that this framework will help further unify these fields,” said Bordenstein.
Not only will this powerful holistic approach affect the basic biological sciences but it also is likely to impact the practice of personalized medicine as well, Bordenstein said.
Take the missing heritability problem, for example. Although genome-wide studies have provided valuable insights into the genetic basis of a number of simple diseases, they have only found a small portion of the genetic causes of a number of more complex conditions such as autoimmune and metabolic diseases.
These may in part be “missing” because the genetic factors that cause them are in the microbiome, he pointed out.
“Instead of being so ‘germophobic,’ we need to accept the fact that we live in and benefit from a microbial world. We are as much an environment for microbes as microbes are for us,” said Bordenstein.
It’s intriguing to see artists and scientists exploring ideas that resonate with each other. In fact, ISEA 2015 hosted a couple of sessions on BioArt, as well as, having sessions devoted to networks. While, I wasn’t thinking about networks or biological systems when I wrote my poem on gold nanoparticles, I did pose this possibility (how we become the sum of our parts) at the end:
we become gold
discovering what we are
As for how Raewyn handled the idea, words fail, please do go here to see the video here.
If you’re interested in the second law of thermodynamics, this Feb. 10, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily provides some insight into the second law, self-organized systems, and evolution,
The second law of thermodynamics tells us that all systems evolve toward a state of maximum entropy, wherein all energy is dissipated as heat, and no available energy remains to do work. Since the mid-20th century, research has pointed to an extension of the second law for nonequilibrium systems: the Maximum Entropy Production Principle (MEPP) states that a system away from equilibrium evolves in such a way as to maximize entropy production, given present constraints.
Now, physicists Alexey Bezryadin, Alfred Hubler, and Andrey Belkin from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, have demonstrated the emergence of self-organized structures that drive the evolution of a non-equilibrium system to a state of maximum entropy production. The authors suggest MEPP underlies the evolution of the artificial system’s self-organization, in the same way that it underlies the evolution of ordered systems (biological life) on Earth. …
MEPP may have profound implications for our understanding of the evolution of biological life on Earth and of the underlying rules that govern the behavior and evolution of all nonequilibrium systems. Life emerged on Earth from the strongly nonequilibrium energy distribution created by the Sun’s hot photons striking a cooler planet. Plants evolved to capture high energy photons and produce heat, generating entropy. Then animals evolved to eat plants increasing the dissipation of heat energy and maximizing entropy production.
In their experiment, the researchers suspended a large number of carbon nanotubes in a non-conducting non-polar fluid and drove the system out of equilibrium by applying a strong electric field. Once electrically charged, the system evolved toward maximum entropy through two distinct intermediate states, with the spontaneous emergence of self-assembled conducting nanotube chains.
In the first state, the “avalanche” regime, the conductive chains aligned themselves according to the polarity of the applied voltage, allowing the system to carry current and thus to dissipate heat and produce entropy. The chains appeared to sprout appendages as nanotubes aligned themselves so as to adjoin adjacent parallel chains, effectively increasing entropy production. But frequently, this self-organization was destroyed through avalanches triggered by the heating and charging that emanates from the emerging electric current streams. (…)
“The avalanches were apparent in the changes of the electric current over time,” said Bezryadin.
“Toward the final stages of this regime, the appendages were not destroyed during the avalanches, but rather retracted until the avalanche ended, then reformed their connection. So it was obvious that the avalanches correspond to the ‘feeding cycle’ of the ‘nanotube inset’,” comments Bezryadin.
In the second relatively stable stage of evolution, the entropy production rate reached maximum or near maximum. This state is quasi-stable in that there were no destructive avalanches.
The study points to a possible classification scheme for evolutionary stages and a criterium for the point at which evolution of the system is irreversible—wherein entropy production in the self-organizing subsystem reaches its maximum possible value. Further experimentation on a larger scale is necessary to affirm these underlying principals, but if they hold true, they will prove a great advantage in predicting behavioral and evolutionary trends in nonequilibrium systems.
The authors draw an analogy between the evolution of intelligent life forms on Earth and the emergence of the wiggling bugs in their experiment. The researchers note that further quantitative studies are needed to round out this comparison. In particular, they would need to demonstrate that their “wiggling bugs” can multiply, which would require the experiment be reproduced on a significantly larger scale.
Such a study, if successful, would have implications for the eventual development of technologies that feature self-organized artificial intelligence, an idea explored elsewhere by co-author Alfred Hubler, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [DARPA]. [emphasis mine]
“The general trend of the evolution of biological systems seems to be this: more advanced life forms tend to dissipate more energy by broadening their access to various forms of stored energy,” Bezryadin proposes. “Thus a common underlying principle can be suggested between our self-organized clouds of nanotubes, which generate more and more heat by reducing their electrical resistance and thus allow more current to flow, and the biological systems which look for new means to find food, either through biological adaptation or by inventing more technologies.
“Extended sources of food allow biological forms to further grow, multiply, consume more food and thus produce more heat and generate entropy. It seems reasonable to say that real life organisms are still far from the absolute maximum of the entropy production rate. In both cases, there are ‘avalanches’ or ‘extinction events’, which set back this evolution. Only if all free energy given by the Sun is consumed, by building a Dyson sphere for example, and converted into heat then a definitely stable phase of the evolution can be expected.”
“Intelligence, as far as we know, is inseparable from life,” he adds. “Thus, to achieve artificial life or artificial intelligence, our recommendation would be to study systems which are far from equilibrium, with many degrees of freedom—many building blocks—so that they can self-organize and participate in some evolution. The entropy production criterium appears to be the guiding principle of the evolution efficiency.”
I am fascinated
(a) because this piece took an unexpected turn onto the topic of artificial life/artificial intelligence,
(b) because of my longstanding interest in artificial life/artificial intelligence,
(c) because of the military connection, and
(d) because this is the first time I’ve come across something that provides a bridge from fundamental particles to nanoparticles.
Yasmin Khan’s Jan. 9, 2013 posting on the Guardian science blogs provides some fascinating insight and I strongly encourage this piece in its totality but for anyone who likes -previews, here’s the opening paragraph (Note: Links have been removed),
More than 850 delegates flocked to a seminal conference [Have Muslims Misunderstood Evolution?] in London on Saturday about the compatibility of modern evolutionary theory and Islamic theology – despite scaremongering and the refusal of Islamic student societies to participate. Determined organisers had overcome pressure to cancel by changing the venue from Imperial College to Logan Hall at the University of London. The event was the brainchild of the Deen Institute, which runs courses to promote critical thinking among Muslim students and kindle rational dialogue within Islam. The need for dialogue is urgent, because to date there has been little open discussion within British Muslim communities on this divisive subject. Recent debates in the US suggest that evolution is not as much of a problem theologically to Muslims as it is to Christian creationists, but there is work to be done to clarify the situation.
Here’s another snippet of what appears to have been a very lively dialogue (Note: Links have been removed),
Fatima Jackson, a biological anthropologist at the University of Maryland, offered a compelling alternative narrative. Nothing in biology would make sense outside the evolution paradigm, which she defined as a “basic organising tool”. She reconciled her faith with science by holding to the belief that the singularity of life is a manifestation of the unity of God. In her view, exploring natural phenomena helps to bring us closer to God. “Evolution doesn’t replace faith, it complements it.”
Each primate, she said, “has its own trajectory from a common ancestor which has diversified”. Humans are a part of the natural world and not a unique creation. “You can’t just push the fossils away,” she cautioned, citing an article by Sheikh al-Turayri, who asserts that the question of evolution is purely a matter for scientific inquiry.
The Deen Institute mentioned as the ‘brains’ behind this initiative seems to have burst onto the scene in June 2012, from a June 22, 2012 Deen Institute press release (scroll down the page to the first press release),
Adam Deen, Co-Founder and Director of the Institute, explains: “People of faith are viewed in some quarters as uneducated, blindly and unquestioningly following outmoded ideologies, which they have not chosen, but rather inherited. The Deen Institute is about challenging that view, about emphasising that faith is the result of rigorous critical thinking and intellectual thought.”
Through dialogue and discussion, The Deen Institute aims to foster engagement with society and contribute to highlighting the fact that Islam is as relevant today as it was fourteen hundred years ago.
The institute will provide academic courses, devised and taught by qualified and experienced instructors, aimed at bridging the gap between the precepts of the faith as enshrined in their historical context and their application to the contemporary era. Courses will center on ethics, philosophy, history and science, and the Institute will also host forums, roundtables and debates aimed at challenging prevailing assumptions. The contents will be summarized in regular publications and online.
The Deen Institute considers the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet Muhammad (the Sunnah) to be the ethical benchmark in the elaboration of an enlightened philosophy and this premise will be reflected in the organisation’s work. However, the Institute is not exclusive to any particular Muslim group or perspective and features eminent scholars from all backgrounds. It also welcomes students from all faiths or none.
The Deen Institute seeks to provide a platform from which shared concerns and questions can be openly discussed and examined, in an atmosphere of respect, civility and mutual understanding.
The Institute and this recent discussion of evolution and Islam puts me in mind of the House of Wisdom (mentioned in my Sept. 24, 2009 posting in reference to the opening of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia),
The House of Wisdom existed from the 9th to 13th centuries CE (common era) in Baghdad. Originally intended as a library whose main purpose was for the translation of books from Persian into Arabic, the House of Wisdom became a centre for the study of the humanities and sciences that was unrivaled in its time. One of its great scholars (Al-Khawarizmi) is known as the ‘father of algebra’. They invented the library catalogue where books were organized according to subjects.
All the best to the Deen Institute and their continued dialogue efforts.
Peer-reviewed and rap music are terms that don’t usually go together unless you’re talking about Vancouver-based rapper, Baba Brinkman. (ETA Feb.17.11 Baba’s website) The performer has developed a rap about evolution that’s been extensively toured in the UK. Sunday, February 20, 2011, Brinkman brings his evolution rap home to Vancouver (Canada) for a performance at the Railway Club presented by the Centre for Inquiry and others. From the event webpage,
The Centre for Inquiry Vancouver, Radio Freethinker and CiTR 101.9FM are proud to present Baba Brinkman and the Rap Guide to Evolution!
Baba brings his rationalist rap back to his home for a special show of his popular spoken word rationalist rap – The Rap Guide to Evolution! The New York Times has said that this is the only hip-hop show to talk of mitochondria, genetic drift, sexual selection or memes. For Brinkman has taken Da rwin’s exhortation seriously. He is a man on a mission to spread the word about evolution — how it works, what it means for our view of the world, and why it is something to be celebrated rather than feared.
Baba’s work has been called:
“Brilliantly conceived and effervescently performed…not only is it factually correct, it’s also dazzlingly intelligent…after seeing this show, you’ll never look at a hip-hop music video in the same way again!” – The Scotsman
Sunday, February 20th 2011 at 9:00 pm – 12 am
The Railway Club, 579 Dunsmuir Street, Vancouver BC
Tickets: $8 at the door
Special Guests: Aaron Nazrul & the Boom Booms
Prior to his Sunday performance, Baba very kindly answered some interview questions:
(a) Is this the first time you’ve given a performance of ‘The Rap Guide to Evolution’ in Vancouver? And how did this performance come about?
This won’t be the Vancouver première of the Rap Guide to Evolution since I was featured as part of the 2009 Vancouver Evolution Festival with performances at UBC, SFU, and at a club venue in Gastown, but the show has evolved considerably over the past two years and it is my first performance in Vancouver since achieving any recognition for the show. In terms of the show’s origins, I was performing a rap adaptation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales a few years back and encountered a geneticist named Dr. Mark Pallen at the University of Birmingham in the UK who challenged me to “do for Darwin what I did for Chaucer”. Dr. Pallen had a grant from the British Council to organize a Darwin Day celebration in 2009 and he commissioned me to write the show for his event, and then after that I brought it to the VanEvo festival, the Cambridge Darwin Festival, the Edinburgh and Adelaide Fringe Festivals, and numerous college campuses, plus an off-Broadway showcase in New York, so it’s been a busy couple of years.
(b) I understand this ‘evolution’ rap was commissioned and is the only ‘science peer-reviewed’ rap in existence. How much research did you do on evolution before you started rapping about it? What did you learn that you didn’t know?
I got the commission officially in September 2008 so I had approximately five months to read-up on evolutionary theory before I started rapping about it. I read books by E O Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond, Joseph Carroll, Dan Dennett, D S Wilson, Geoffrey Miller, and Mark Pallen’s own “Rough Guide to Evolution”. There were other books as well but those are the authors that significantly influenced the writing. What I learned is that the explanatory power of Darwin’s theory is far more vast that I had imagined when first accepting the challenge. I was familiar with evolution from taking biology and human origins courses at University, but I had never heard of Universal Darwinism or Evolutionary Psychology or Costly Signaling or any number of key concepts that ended up featuring heavily in the show.
(c) How has your rapping practice (scientific and otherwise) evolved?
My rapping practiced has evolved in the same way that everything else evolves, gradually and haphazardly in response to changing environmental circumstances. For instance, I would never have guessed when I started rapping at the age of 19 that I would end up in a science rapping niche, but each step seems to have followed effortlessly enough from the last along the way. I still attend to the same stylistic and musical concerns as before so that I keep improving my skills, but the content has taken some surprising turns. There’s an apt expression in hip-hop for this process (also the title of a Too-Short album): Get In Where You Fit In.
(d) Is there anything you’d like to add?
The Rap Guide to Evolution will be transferring to New York for an off-Broadway run in a couple of months, so come see the show while you can, since I might not be back for another two years at this rate!
I’m hoping to get there for Baba’s performance and his last comment definitely provides motivation in addition to the incentive provided by the sweet sounds of his special guests, Aaron Nazrul & the Boom Booms.
I have featured Baba and his work previously in these posts: