EssentialstheDiagonal is a personal blog by Mike Gerra, skeptic, technologist, psychologist, artist, humanist, collector of grand, eclectic ideas.theDiagonal blog connects the dots across multiple disciplines for inquisitive, objective and critical thinkers, exploring the vertices of big science, disruptive innovation, global sustainability, illuminating literature and leftfield art. It is on this diagonal that creativity thrives, big ideas take flight and reason triumphs.
Tag Archives: evolution
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Linguists have traditionally held that words in a language have an average lifespan of around 8,000 years. Words change and are often discarded or replaced over time as the language evolves and co-opts other words from other tongues. English has been particularly adept at collecting many new words from different languages, which partly explains its global popularity.
Recently however, linguists have found that a small group of words have a lifespan that far exceeds the usual understanding. These 15,000-20,000 year old ultra-conserved words may be the linguistic precursors to common cognates — words with similar sound and meaning — that now span many different language families containing hundreds of languages.
From the Washington Post:
You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!...read more
Friday, February 15, 2013
Hot on the heels of recent successes by the Texas School Board of Education (SBOE) to revise history and science curricula, legislators in Missouri are planning to redefine commonly accepted scientific principles. Much like the situation in Texas the Missouri House is mandating that intelligent design be taught alongside evolution, in equal measure, in all the state’s schools. But, in a bid to take the lead in reversing thousands of years of scientific progress Missouri plans to redefine the actual scientific framework. So, if you can’t make “intelligent design” fit the principles of accepted science, then just change the principles themselves — first up, change the meanings of the terms “scientific hypothesis” and “scientific theory”.
We suspect that a couple of years from now, in Missouri, 2+2 will be redefined to equal 5, and that logic, deductive reasoning and experimentation will be replaced with mushy green peas....read more
Wednesday, January 2, 2013
A clever idea about the process of emergence from mathematicians at the University of Vermont has some evolutionary biologists thinking.
From MIT Review:
One of the most puzzling questions about the origin of life is how the rich chemical landscape that makes life possible came into existence.
This landscape would have consisted among other things of amino acids, proteins and complex RNA molecules. What’s more, these molecules must have been part of a rich network of interrelated chemical reactions which generated them in a reliable way.
Clearly, all that must have happened before life itself emerged. But how?
One idea is that groups of molecules can form autocatalytic sets. These are self-sustaining chemical factories, in which the product of one reaction is the feedstock or catalyst for another. The result is a virtuous, self-contained cycle of chemical creation....read more
Wednesday, December 26, 2012
LincRNA that is. Recent discoveries hint at the potentially crucial role of this new class of genetic material in embryonic development, cell and tissue differentiation and even speciation and evolution.
From the Economist:
THE old saying that where there’s muck, there’s brass has never proved more true than in genetics. Once, and not so long ago, received wisdom was that most of the human genome—perhaps as much as 99% of it—was “junk”. If this junk had a role, it was just to space out the remaining 1%, the genes in which instructions about how to make proteins are encoded, in a useful way in the cell nucleus....read more
Thursday, November 22, 2012
Geneticists have discovered a gene that helps explain how humans and apes diverged from their common ancestor around 6 million years ago.
From the Guardian:
Researchers have discovered a new gene they say helps explain how humans evolved from chimpanzees.
The gene, called miR-941, appears to have played a crucial role in human brain development and could shed light on how we learned to use tools and language, according to scientists.
A team at the University of Edinburgh compared it to 11 other species of mammals, including chimpanzees, gorillas, mice and rats.
The results, published in Nature Communications, showed that the gene is unique to humans.
The team believe it emerged between six and one million years ago, after humans evolved from apes.
Researchers said it is the first time a new gene carried by humans and not by apes has been shown to have a specific function in the human body....read more
Friday, November 16, 2012
British voters may recall Screaming Lord Sutch, 3rd Earl of Harrow, of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party, who ran in over 40 parliamentary elections during the 1980s and 90s. He never won, but garnered a respectable number of votes and many fans (he was also a musician).
The United States followed a more dignified path in the 2012 elections, when Charles Darwin ran for a Congressional seat in Georgia. Darwin failed to win, but collected a respectable 4,000 votes. His opponent, Paul Broun, believes that the Earth “is but about 9,000 years old”. Interestingly, Representative Broun serves on the United States House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.
Monday, November 5, 2012
The endless pursuit of beauty in human affairs probably pre-dates our historical record. We certainly know that ancient Egyptians used cosmetics believing them to offer magical and religious powers, in addition to aesthetic value.
Yet paradoxically beauty it is rather subjective and often fleeting. The French singer, songwriter, composer and bon viveur once said that, “ugliness is superior to beauty because it lasts longer”. Author Stephen Bayley argues in his new book “Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything”, that beauty is downright boring.
From the Telegraph:
Beauty is boring. And the evidence is piling up. An article in the journal Psychological Science now confirms what partygoers have known forever: that beauty and charm are no more directly linked than a high IQ and a talent for whistling....read more
Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Businesses spend “gazillions” on projecting a brand image, with the corporate logo often as the key centerpiece. Some logos are instantly recognizable; a testament to the vast amounts that companies spend on their brands. Many contemporary logos have evolved over time to project an in-the-moment image rather than an outdated one. Check out some very interesting design evolutions below, courtesy of StockLogos:
The original Apple logo dates from 1976, in a design by Ronald Wayne. It features a drawing of Isaac Newton under an apple tree and a quote from William Wordsworth.
The first AT&T logo shown was introduced in 1900. (This is pre-dated by a logo from 1889, which did not feature the AT&T name).
More then-and-now logos after the jump.
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Sunday, July 8, 2012
In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore made a prediction about computing that has held true to this day. Moore’s law, as it came to be known, forecasted that the number of transistors we’d be able to cram onto a circuit—and thereby, the effective processing speed of our computers—would double roughly every two years. Remarkably enough, this rule has been accurate for nearly 50 years, but most experts now predict that this growth will slow by the end of the decade.
Someday, though, a radical new approach to creating silicon semiconductors might enable this rate to continue—and could even accelerate it. As detailed in a study published in this month’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers from the University of California at Santa Barbara and elsewhere have harnessed the process of evolution to produce enzymes that create novel semiconductor structures....read more
Monday, July 2, 2012
A fascinating article by Nick Lane a leading researcher into the origins of life. Lane is a Research Fellow at University College London.
He suggests that it would be surprising if simple, bacterial-like, life were not common throughout the universe. However, the acquisition of one cell by another — an event that led to all higher organisms on planet Earth, is an altogether much rarer occurrence. So are we alone in the universe?
From the New Scientist:
UNDER the intense stare of the Kepler space telescope, more and more planets similar to our own are revealing themselves to us. We haven’t found one exactly like Earth yet, but so many are being discovered that it appears the galaxy must be teeming with habitable planets....read more
Saturday, May 26, 2012
It takes no expert neuroscientist, anthropologist or evolutionary biologist to recognize that human evolution has probably stalled. After all, one only needs to observe our obsession with reality TV. Yes, evolution screeched to a halt around 1999, when reality TV hit critical mass in the mainstream public consciousness. So, what of evolution?
From the Wall Street Journal:
If you write about genetics and evolution, one of the commonest questions you are likely to be asked at public events is whether human evolution has stopped. It is a surprisingly hard question to answer.
I’m tempted to give a flippant response, borrowed from the biologist Richard Dawkins: Since any human trait that increases the number of babies is likely to gain ground through natural selection, we can say with some confidence that incompetence in the use of contraceptives is probably on the rise (though only if those unintended babies themselves thrive enough to breed in turn)....read more
Friday, April 20, 2012
David Bainbridge, author of “Middle Age: A Natural History”, examines the benefits of middle age. Yes, really. For those of us in “middle age” it’s not surprising to see that this period is not limited to decline, disease and senility. Rather, it’s a pre-programmed redistribution of physical and mental resources designed to cope with our ever-increasing life spans.
From David Bainbridge over at New Scientist:
As a 42-year-old man born in England, I can expect to live for about another 38 years. In other words, I can no longer claim to be young. I am, without doubt, middle-aged....read more
Monday, March 19, 2012
From the Wall Street Journal:
Can physicists produce insights about language that have eluded linguists and English professors? That possibility was put to the test this week when a team of physicists published a paper drawing on Google’s massive collection of scanned books. They claim to have identified universal laws governing the birth, life course and death of words.
The paper marks an advance in a new field dubbed “Culturomics”: the application of data-crunching to subjects typically considered part of the humanities. Last year a group of social scientists and evolutionary theorists, plus the Google Books team, showed off the kinds of things that could be done with Google’s data, which include the contents of five-million-plus books, dating back to 1800....read more
Monday, March 5, 2012
In the early 19th century Noah Webster set about re-defining written English. His aim was to standardize the spoken word in the fledgling nation and to distinguish American from British usage. In his own words, “as an independent nation, our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government.”
He used his dictionary, which still bears his name today, as a tool to cleanse English of its stubborn reliance on aristocratic pedantry and over-reliance on Latin and Greek. He “simplified” the spelling of numerous words that he believed were contsructed with rules that were all too complicated. Thus, “colour” became “color” and “honour” switched to “honor”; “centre” became “center”, “behaviour” to “behavior”, “traveller” to “traveler”....read more
Monday, December 19, 2011
A widely held aphorism states that owners often look like their pets, or visa versa. So, might it apply to humans and fish? Well, Ted Sabarese a photographer based in New York provides an answer in a series of fascinating portraits.
From Kalliopi Monoyios over at Scientific American:
I can’t say for certain whether New York based photographer Ted Sabarese had science or evolution in mind when he conceived of this series. But I’m almost glad he never responded to my follow-up questions about his inspiration behind these. Part of the fun of art is its mirror-like quality: everyone sees something different when faced with it because everyone brings a different set of experiences and expectations to the table. When I look at these I see equal parts “you are what you eat,” “your inner fish,” and “United Colors of Benetton.”
Read more of this article here.
Discover more of Ted Sabarese’s work here.
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Thursday, December 8, 2011
The world lost pioneering biologist Lynn Margulis on November 22.
One of her key contributions to biology, and in fact, to our overall understanding of the development of complex life, was her theory of the symbiotic origin of the nucleated cell, or symbiogenesis. Almost 50 years ago Margulis first argued that such complex nucleated, or eukaryotic, cells were formed from the association of different kinds of bacteria. Her idea was both radical and beautiful: that separate organisms, in this case ancestors of modern bacteria, would join together in a permanent relationship to form a new entity, a complex single cell.
Until fairly recently this idea was mostly dismissed by the scientific establishment. Nowadays her pioneering ideas on cell evolution through symbiosis are held as a fundamental scientific breakthrough.
We feature some excerpts below of Margulis’ writings:
From the Edge:
Sunday, October 9, 2011
Though ongoing human evolution is difficult to see, researchers believe they’ve found signs of rapid genetic changes among the recent residents of a small Canadian town.
Between 1800 and 1940, mothers in Ile aux Coudres, Quebec gave birth at steadily younger ages, with the average age of first maternity dropping from 26 to 22. Increased fertility, and thus larger families, could have been especially useful in the rural settlement’s early history.
According to University of Quebec geneticist Emmanuel Milot and colleagues, other possible explanations, such as changing cultural or environmental influences, don’t fit. The changes appear to reflect biological evolution....read more
Wednesday, August 31, 2011
From Scientific American:
Cities reverberate through history as centers of civilization. Ur. Babylon. Rome. Baghdad. Tenochtitlan. Beijing. Paris. London. New York. As pivotal as cities have been for our art and culture, our commerce and trade, our science and technology, our wars and peace, it turns out that cities might have been even more important than we had suspected, influencing our very genes and evolution.
Cities reverberate through history as centers of civilization. Ur. Babylon. Rome. Baghdad. Tenochtitlan. Beijing. Paris. London. New York. As pivotal as cities have been for our art and culture, our commerce and trade, our science and technology, our wars and peace, it turns out that cities might have been even more important than we had suspected, influencing our very genes and evolution....read more
Friday, July 29, 2011
By Massimo Pigliucci at Rationally Speaking:
A recent paper on the evolutionary psychology of reasoning has made mainstream news, with extensive coverage by the New York Times, among others. Too bad the “research” is badly flawed, and the lesson drawn by Patricia Cohen’s commentary in the Times is precisely the wrong one....read more
Sunday, July 3, 2011
Neurological and Darwinistic strands in the philosophy of consciousness see human beings as no more than our evolved brains. Avoiding naturalistic explanations of human beings’ fundamental difference from other animals requires openness to more expansive approaches, argues Raymond Tallis....read more
Monday, June 27, 2011
From the New Scientist:
Automated genetic tinkering is just the start – this machine could be used to rewrite the language of life and create new species of humans
IT IS a strange combination of clumsiness and beauty. Sitting on a cheap-looking worktop is a motley ensemble of flasks, trays and tubes squeezed onto a home-made frame. Arrays of empty pipette tips wait expectantly. Bunches of black and grey wires adorn its corners. On the top, robotic arms slide purposefully back and forth along metal tracks, dropping liquids from one compartment to another in an intricately choreographed dance. Inside, bacteria are shunted through slim plastic tubes, and alternately coddled, chilled and electrocuted. The whole assembly is about a metre and a half across, and controlled by an ordinary computer....read more
Friday, November 26, 2010
Natural selection acts by winnowing the individuals of each generation, sometimes clumsily, as old parts and genes are co-opted for new roles. As a result, all species inhabit bodies imperfect for the lives they live. Our own bodies are worse off than most simply because of the many differences between the wilderness in which we evolved and the modern world in which we live. We feel the consequences every day. Here are ten....read more
Thursday, May 20, 2010
From the New Scientist:
For the first time, scientists have created life from scratch – well, sort of. Craig Venter‘s team at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, and San Diego, California, has made a bacterial genome from smaller DNA subunits and then transplanted the whole thing into another cell. So what exactly is the science behind the first synthetic cell, and what is its broader significance?
What did Venter’s team do?
The cell was created by stitching together the genome of a goat pathogen called Mycoplasma mycoides from smaller stretches of DNA synthesised in the lab, and inserting the genome into the empty cytoplasm of a related bacterium. The transplanted genome booted up in its host cell, and then divided over and over to make billions of M. mycoides cells....read more
Monday, March 1, 2010
Friday, January 29, 2010
Charles Darwin would have turned 200 in 2009, the same year his book On the Origin of Species celebrated its 150th anniversary. Today, with the perspective of time, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection looks as impressive as ever. In fact, the double anniversary year saw progress on fronts that Darwin could never have anticipated, bringing new insights into the origin of life—a topic that contributed to his panic attacks, heart palpitations, and, as he wrote, “for 25 years extreme spasmodic daily and nightly flatulence.” One can only dream of what riches await in the biology textbooks of 2159....read more
Saturday, May 2, 2009
The farther we peer into space, the more we realize that the nature of the universe cannot be understood fully by inspecting spiral galaxies or watching distant supernovas. It lies deeper. It involves our very selves.
This insight snapped into focus one day while one of us (Lanza) was walking through the woods. Looking up, he saw a huge golden orb web spider tethered to the overhead boughs. There the creature sat on a single thread, reaching out across its web to detect the vibrations of a trapped insect struggling to escape. The spider surveyed its universe, but everything beyond that gossamer pinwheel was incomprehensible. The human observer seemed as far-off to the spider as telescopic objects seem to us. Yet there was something kindred: We humans, too, lie at the heart of a great web of space and time whose threads are connected according to laws that dwell in our minds....read more
Monday, February 16, 2009
“There are no shortcuts in evolution,” famed Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis once said. He might have reconsidered those words if he could have foreseen the coming revolution in biotechnology, including the ability to alter genes and manipulate stem cells. These breakthroughs could bring on an age of directed reproduction and evolution in which humans will bypass the incremental process of natural selection and set off on a high-speed genetic course of their own. Here are some of the latest and greatest advances....read more
Sunday, June 10, 2007
From Scientific American:
Extraordinary discoveries inspire extraordinary claims. Thus, James Watson reported that immediately after he and Francis Crick uncovered the structure of DNA, Crick “winged into the Eagle (pub) to tell everyone within hearing that we had discovered the secret of life.” Their structure–an elegant double helix–almost merited such enthusiasm. Its proportions permitted information storage in a language in which four chemicals, called bases, played the same role as 26 letters do in the English language.
Further, the information was stored in two long chains, each of which specified the contents of its partner. This arrangement suggested a mechanism for reproduction: The two strands of the DNA double helix parted company, and new DNA building blocks that carry the bases, called nucleotides, lined up along the separated strands and linked up. Two double helices now existed in place of one, each a replica of the original....read more
Wednesday, January 10, 2007