Reading Round Up

Here’s some stuff I’ve been reading over the last month or so:

Okay, so that brings you up to date with my reading from May through to July. Next round up will cover August. How fascinating :-/

Continuity or Discontinuity: are our minds purely shaped by natural selection?

ResearchBlogging.orgThe debate concerning the origin of our minds stems back to the diverging opinions of Darwin (1871) and Wallace (1870). When Charles Darwin first discussed the evolution of our seemingly unique cognitive faculties, he proposed that there is “no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties.” (Darwin, 1871, pg. 66). Conversely, Wallace was suspicious of whether natural selection alone could have shaped the human mind, writing:  “[…] that the same law which appears to have sufficed for the development of animals, has been alone the cause of man’s superior mental nature, […] will, I have no doubt, be overruled and explained away. But I venture to think they will nevertheless maintain their ground, and that they can only be met by the discovery of new facts or new laws, of a nature very different from any yet known to us.” In the intervening years, the debate surrounding the degree of continuity between animal and human minds still rages on in contemporary discussions (Bolhuis & Wynne, 2009; Penn, Holyoak & Povinelli, 2009).

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An article a day… starting some time soon

Having handed in my disseration and, with the notable exception of graduation, all but completed my course, I’m now free to spend much more time working on this blog. From now on I’m hoping to post at least an article a day — varying from research-related posts to just my reading for the day. Probably the most pertinent thing to write about is what I have been working on over these past few months, but being a precocious topic-hopper I’m going to provide a video of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, an economist who appears to hold a lot of sensible views about the economy.

N.B. The video I was watching doesn’t appear to be compatible with wordpress. So, here is the link to that video, and the video below is a far shorter segment from Newsnight. It’s dumbed down to the extreme, but you get the gist of Mr Taleb’s stance. Enjoy.

How do biology and culture interact?

In the year of Darwin, I’m not too surprised at the number of articles being published on the interactions between cultural change and biological evolution — this synthesis, if achieved, will certainly be a crucial step in explaining how humans evolved. Still, it’s unlikely we’re going to see the Darwin of culture in 2009, given we’re still disputing some of the fundamentals surrounding these two modes of evolution. One of these key arguments is whether or not culture inhibits biological evolution. That we’re seeing accelerated changes in the human genome seems to suggest (for some) that culture is one of these evolutionary selection pressures, as John Hawks explains:
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Neanderthal Genome Published

…Well, 60% of the genome at least. Not much has been said yet in regards to the nitty gritty aspects of Svante and colleagues’ findings. No doubt John Hawks and many others will offer their own perspectives over the next couple of days. If you’re interested in the immediate gist then here’s a link to the press release. Also, here is a quote from the BBC offering a succinct summary:
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Toadflax flowers are cool

Other than sound like a character from Bucky O’Hare, Toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) are fascinating plants for several reasons. Taking centre stage though is how this plant potentially offers another method of inheritance beyond genes. We’re now entering the slightly confusing world of epigenetics.

See, a particular species of these toadflax plants come in two distinct flavours: one consists of white, symmetrically arranged petals, whilst the other form is yellow and has five-pointed stars. Interestingly, this variation is not directly due to their DNA. Rather, these observed differences, which by the way are inherited by the offspring, are due to molecular caps attached to their DNA. As Carl Zimmer explains in his brilliant essay for the New York times:
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Memory master chimp

Having already written an article about the wonders of Orangutans, I felt that Chimps needed to reclaim their rightful place as the second-best primate. What better way to demonstrate their rightful genius than to beat the presumed kings of short term memory, us mere (and slightly less impressive) humans. Don’t believe me, well watch this great National Geographic clip:

N.B. I know this is hardly cutting edge news, but I was writing a best of 2008 post earlier this year, and forgot to finish writing the post. So, expect a whole slew of articles over the next 24 hours.

Titanoboa… OMG!

If you think this snake is big…

… Then quickly get acquainted with the new (or old?) champ, Titanoboa:

The fossilised vertebra of titanoboa. WTF!
Left: A model vertebra of an extant anaconda, arguably the largest snake in the world. Right: The fossilised vertebra of Titanoboa. WTF!

Dramatic name. Dramatic find. Let’s just put it this way: this snake would eat the motherf**king plane. See Ed Young’s or PZ Myers’ accounts for more information.

Neanderthal genome unveiling to coincide with Darwin's birthday

February 12th — keep this date in mind and prepare your browser on automatic refresh because the Neanderthal genome is to be unveiled. And just to make it extra special, the date on which we’ll dip into the three billion base pairs of our extinct relative is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin‘s birth. Here’s a little extract from the Nature article just to peak your interest:

Comparisons with the human genome may uncover evidence of interbreeding between Neanderthals and humans, the genomes of which overlap by more than 99%. They certainly had enough time for fraternization — Homo sapiens emerged as a separate species by about 400,000 years ago, and Neanderthals became extinct just 30,000 years ago. Their last common ancestor lived about 660,000 years ago, give or take 140,000 years.

I can’t think why we wouldn’t have interbred with Neanderthals. Language of course is one possible reason, acting as a symbolic marker of group boundaries to such an extent that even cultural differences within humans would minimise gene flow (assuming language, or even a protolanguage, was around then). That said, even contemporary humans are quite willing to fuck goats (and god knows what else). So why not the Neanderthals?

N.B. If you’re not familiar with they dynamics surrounding the possibility of Neanderthals having contributed some genes to modern humans, then I strongly suggest you read John Hawks’ Neanderthal FAQ. Also, check out his sections on adaptive introgression.