Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Mutations: The Good, the Bad, and the Neutral (Part 1)

Chapter two of Dobzhansky’s Genetics and the Origin of Species is a summary of lessons learned surrounding the enigmatic ‘mutation’.  What is so fascinating about this is that, first of all, he addresses a number of misconceptions that the public still have about mutations today, and, secondly, he did this without knowing the mechanisms behind mutations.  For example, today we know that point mutations can occur in DNA.  This is when one of the bases in a DNA molecule gets swapped for another one.  Thus a C (the molecule cytosine) get could replaced with a T (thymine), which could potentially affect the appearance or behaviour of the organism.  In 1937, everyone knew that biological information was stored in the chromosomes.  It was known that chromosomes were somehow composed of genes (stuffed into the chromosomes like a sausage, according to Dobzhansky), and that sometimes parts of chromosomes could break off, switch around, go missing, get doubled.  But no one knew that genes were made of DNA.  No one knew that there were four 'letters' to DNA.  No one knew that mutations could occur in the DNA.  Yet Dobzhansky could still with full confidence talk about point mutations!  He knew they had to exist, even if he could not explain how.

Today I would like to give a snapshot of the lessons Dobzhansky learned when studying mutations.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Big Questions of Evolutionary Biology - A Guide to 'Genetics and the Origin of Species'

Perhaps you don't believe in evolution.  Rob Bell, in Love Wins, asks people who say they don't believe in God, 'Which God?'  When they describe their understanding of the Christian God, Bell often discovers that he doesn't believe in that God either.  So if you don't believe in evolution, 'Which evolution?'  What is your understanding of evolution?  Because odds are, if your knowledge comes from Creationists, it is going to be filled with misunderstandings.  The best way to understand evolution is to delve into the writings of evolutionary researchers.  This is exactly what we will be doing over the next few weeks, as we explore Theodosius Dobzhansky's 1937 evolutionary classic, Genetics and the Origin of Species.  I will try to limit the scientific words that I use (or at least define the difficult ones), but I make no apologies.  If you want to know if evolution is true, you're going to need to learn some jargon.  Thankfully, Google dictionary exists to help us out!  If you're an evolutionist, you may also be surprised to read what evolutionary biology was like in the 1930s, and it may challenge some of your own beliefs as well.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Why Special Creation Failed - An Introduction to Genetics and the Origin of Species

Special creation, defined as the direct creation of fixed (unchanging) species by God, was the predominant view of the origin of species among scientists during Darwin’s time.  Writes David Reznick in The Origin Then and Now, ‘Today we think of the advocates of special creation as representing non-scientific, religious opponents to evolution.  In Darwin’s day, they were the scientific establishment.  Virtually everyone, ranging from his professors at Cambridge to all those who had the greatest influence on Darwin’s intellectual development, advocated some form of special creation.’

Friday, May 20, 2011

Cool Fish - Rapid Evolution, Stickleback and Evolutionary Biology in Canada

Dr. Rowan Barrett, currently of Harvard but previously of UBC with Dolph Schluter, presented an interesting experiment at the CSEE conference last weekend that I wanted to share with you.  My goal in sharing these experiments are twofold:  first, I think the research being done in Canada needs to be celebrated, but we researchers do a poor job in communicating our findings to the public; and secondly, and more in the spirit of this blog, I think a lot of evangelical Christians hear ‘evolutionary biologist’ and immediately assume that they are biologists of fantasy, interpreting the world through a dishonest lens.  I hope that the Christians who read about these experiments will realize that these researchers are not trying to pull the wool over our eyes; instead they are following the evidence, trying their best to understand the complexity of this dynamic world.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Its Not You, Its Me - Sex, Fruit Flies, and Evolutionary Biology in Canada

I’m back!  Sorry I’ve been silent for the past week.  I just came back from five days in Banff, Alberta (with amazingly beautiful 20-degree weather the entire time, which is unheard-of in Alberta in May).  Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time to enjoy the scenery, as I was responsible for registration for the 2011 conference for the Canadian Society of Ecology and Evolution.  My supervisor, Sean Rogers, was in charge of the event, and pulled off what I think is unanimously considered the best CSEE conference to date.  Not that the ones in the past were bad, but this year’s venue at the Banff Center was simply perfect, and I am happy to have been a small part of it.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

God in the Origin of Species

It is an interesting and much-observed phenomenon that the language of technology can be appropriated for describing the world in new ways.   The best example of this today comes from philosophy of mind and consciousness, where analogies from the computer sciences have helped us envision how the mind operates.  It is interesting to ponder how our concept of mind would have developed without the advent of computer processors.

In the 1600s one of the most remarkable pieces of technology was the clock.  The clock had indeed been around for hundreds of years, but by the late 1500s it had gained an unprecedented level of complexity.  The second Strasbourg clock, for example, which was completed in 1574, contained moving statues and automata, played music, and could track both the time and the movement of celestial bodies.  One of the great ironies of history was that a device whose history began as a simple shadow caused by the movement of the sun, would become one of the most powerful images for the movement of the universe.