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.

Current Issues in Language Evolution

As part of my assessment this term I’m to write four mock peer-reviewed items for a module called Current Issues in Language Evolution. It’s a great module run by Simon Kirby, examining some of the best food for thought in the field. Alone this is an interesting endeavour, after all we’re right in the middle of a language evolution renaissance, however, even cooler are the lectures, where students get to do their own presentations on a particular paper. I already did my presentation at the start of this term, on Dediu and Ladd’s paper, which went rather well, even if one of my slip ups did not go unnoticed (hint: always label the graphs). So, over the next few weeks, in amongst additional posts covering some of the presentations in class, I’ll hopefully be writing articles on these four five papers:

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BBC is impartial, apparently?

…Or so the news story goes:

BBC director general Mark Thompson said that if the corporation transmitted the appeal it would be “running the risk of reducing public confidence in the BBC’s impartiality in its wider coverage of the story”.

It always amuses me how the BBC retains a sense of commitment to impartiality when it continually fails to adhere to these standards on an almost daily basis. A greater irony is that through their reluctance to broadcast the Gaza Appeal, the BBC inadvertently drew the attention of Tony Benn, who decided to tell everyone the charity’s address live on BBC News (scroll down article to see the video). So now I guess the BBC’s just left with its principles…

To donate, visit: http://www.dec.org.uk (see BBC, it’s not that hard!)

ASPM, Microcephalin and Tone

ResearchBlogging.orgDisclaimer: I know this post is on a paper released over a year ago; however, I’m still going to write about it for three reasons: 1) I did a presentation about it earlier this week (20/01/08); 2) I think it relates to a recent buzz around gene-culture co-evolution; and, 3) It’s a bloody awesome paper.

So, what is the paper called? Okay, once you read this title, do not yawn, go to another website or… Linguistic tone is related to the population frequency of the adaptive haplogroups of the two brain size genes, ASPM and Mircocephalin. See, now we’ve got the hard part out of the way, I can begin to discuss exactly what the authors, Dan Dediu and Robert ‘Bob’ Ladd, found and why it’s important to our understanding of linguistics, genetics and evolution. It’s really interesting, honestly.
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Need a platform for uninformed opinions?

Then try the Guardian’s comment is free on for size. Just read Jonathan Jones’ article on religion, science and nouveau atheism. I’m not going to say much (this turns out to be a slight lie) here, other than to direct your attention to this paragraph:

[…] the Dawkins view encourages a caricature of the history of science. It dramatises a clash between scientific reason and religious superstition that is supposedly as intense today as it was in the age of Galileo. But this is a schoolchild’s version of the history of science. It is simplistic and inaccurate to imagine that scientific discovery has ever been either the fruit, or the seed, of pure reason. Science, like art, is imaginative. And the imaginative pictures of the universe created by the great scientists have rarely been free of ideas that in the nouveau atheist view are irrational.

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