davegodfrey: Coelacanth (Science)
So the beeb is going all out with the marking of Darwin's 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of "On the Origin of Species". As part of this they have several TV programmes. Including "What Darwin Didn't Know" a 90 minute documentary by the biologist Armand Leroi, discussing the various problems that Darwin foresaw in his theory, and how these gaps have been filled.

(This programme should not be confused with Geoffrey Simmons book of the same title about ID, by a guy who thinks whales are evidence against evolution, but knows nothing about their fossil record).

It deals with the fact that Darwin didn't have a workable theory of inheritance, plumping for a blending hypothesis, which clearly has problems- novel traits will be quickly diluted, so can never spread. One thing it covers in a good degree of detail is the "Eclipse of Darwinism" that happenned soon after his death. Scientists discovered mutations, and came up with ideas about "orthogenesis" species passing along defined evolutionary paths, like those of a developing embryo. Natural selection was pretty much ignored. Even when Mendelian genetics was rediscovered it took until the 1920s and 30s to really get to grips with what was going on. Leroi largely skips over this, concentration on one of the competing theories (Hugo de Vries' model that suggested that all evolution needed was mutations to occur). If he'd have gone into any more detail he;'d probably have filled the entire programme, which is a pity, because the rest of the show was also extremely good.

One of the most interesting fields to have developed since Darwin is that of "evo-devo", the examination of shared genetic and developmental pathways across groups. For instance the gene Pax-6 is responsible for initiating eye development in both humans and insects. Alter it in a fruit fly and you get an eyeless fly (which is what it sounds like). In humans the same kinds of mutations exist, and the condition aniridia results- children are born without an iris, and thus have trouble seeing.

Similarly a characteristic shared across animals is the presence of a particular group of genes called Hox genes. These control development, and like Pax-6 operate as switches turning other genes on and off in different parts of the genome. When these genes are expressed incorrectly we can see what they do. We have, it seems come full circle and are back to de Vries' cataloguing and examination of mutants, albeit using techniques that he and Darwin would be astounded by.

Its available on BBC iPlayer (for the UK residents) until the 4th of February, but I'm sure its crept onto the filesharing websites by now.

Merlin

Nov. 9th, 2008 08:03 pm
davegodfrey: South Park Me. (Default)
No! Just no. You can take some liberties. Just. Not. That. One.

Congratulations, you've just broken Arthurian legend.

Sigh...
davegodfrey: Coelacanth (Science)
This blog seems to have turned into a TV/Media reporting site recently. Never mind.
The Beeb have a new series out called "Fossil Detectives". Presented by Hermione Cockburn it is an 8-part series made by the OU. (So that should be a good indicator of quality.) Sadly, unlike the OU shows I remember as a child there's a distinct lack of beards, and less detail in some things than I would like. But being the OU what is there is top-notch stuff. This weeks episode concentrated on Central England, so we got a look at the Dudley Bug (the trilobite Calymene), the serial grinding work of Peter Sheldon that revealed a fossil sea-spider, David Attenborough reminiscing about his childhood collecting fossils, and the Ediacaran fauna of Charnwood Forest in Leicestershire.

What most excited me was the section on the BGS's work in rediscovering one of the more obscure Lagerst├Ątten deposits, an Oxford Clay site in Wiltshire where volcanic eruptions poisoned the water, creating a predator trap, and preserving soft tissue in phosphate. The site had previously revealed beautiful cephalopod fossils, belemnites with their hooks in life positions, and squid with their arms, fins and ink sacs preserved. Sadly the site was lost as the local collector provided misleading information as to its location, but the BGS have rediscovered it.
 What was especially exciting for me is that I'd looked at the NHM's collection as part of my undergrad degree, so the thought of this site being rediscovered warms the cockles of my dead-squid-loving heart.

Next weeks episode is on London, so of course we get "hippos in Trafalgar Square", and the other episodes detail different regions , with input from the appropriate scientists, Jeff Liston discussing Leedsichthys in Peterborough for instance. I'm rather  looking forward to them.

One of this week's "Charlie and Lola" was entitled "It is very special, and extremely ancient." Charlie is given an ammonite, and his sister Lola is very interested in it. Its even older than 25. Lola decides to look for fossils with her friend Lotta. Of course they start looking in all the wrong places (digging holes in sandpits, etc) before being taken to the beach where after an unsuccessful day they finally find something right at the end. Its a wavy line in the cartoon. Lola thinks its a centipede, Charlie isn't sure its a fossil at all, and it turns out to be a Nematode worm, and is Very Special and put on display in the museum.

There's definitely a degree of accuracy. Very often the most exciting finds occur on the last day of the dig (this happened to John Ostrom when he discovered Deinonychus, and seems to crop up in every other episode of Time Team). But the nematode fossil? That really would be something special. Nematodes are soft-bodied, so their chances of being fossilised are extremely rare. Some are known from Scotland, found inside the remains of a decaying sea-scorpion (Gigantoscorpio), others from Mazon Creek in Illinois (and I assume that Charlie & Lola don't live near Chicago), and still more from amber, including records of parasitism. However trace fossils resembling the wavy lines of nematode trails are known from Triassic and Eocene deposits, and Cochlichnus, a similar fossil is often attributed to nematodes, so perhaps that's what Lola found.

If a kids cartoon can get this sort of thing right, and it didn't take long to find the information via Google, then why can't newspapers?

Stormer, L. 1963. Gigantoscorpio willisi, a new scorpion from the Lower Carboniferous of Scotland and its
associated preying microorganisms. Skrifter Utgitt a v Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi i Oslo, 8:1-171.

Valentine, J. W. 2004. On the Origin of Phyla. University of Chicago Press.
davegodfrey: Flying Spaghetti Monster : Touched by his noodly appendage (FSM)
I didn't like Make Me A Christian.

Neither did Charlie Brooker. Although I did learn that Reverend George (the chap who gave the lapdancing witch a bollocking for having sex before marriage, and being interested in tarot) wrote that Sinitta song "So macho"! The mind boggles.
davegodfrey: Flying Spaghetti Monster : Touched by his noodly appendage (FSM)
Hot on the heels of Richard Dawkins' The Genius of Darwin (which had a post's-worth of problems, but otherwise I generally enjoyed.This week's on Social Darwinism should be better), Channel 4 is screening Make me a Christian. Wherin about a dozen people from various backgrounds in Leeds are berated for being "sinful" and lectured by a bunch of somewhat fundamental Christians.

I could tell I wasn't going to like it when in the first 10 minutes the guy leading the project states that he believes in Genesis and Adam and Eve because Jesus did. No further explanation seemed necessary to him. He didn't seem to think there was anything wrong with bullying a woman who was clearly unhappy with her life, and may well have had self-esteem issues, picking on the fact that she was interested in tarot, wicca and witchcraft. And then he meets the lesbian, confiscates her erotica, posters, etc. Isn't Christianity supposed to be about love? Because that really wasn't the message he was sending out.

There's a scene where they get the group together and discuss abortion with them, showing them graphic videos of the procedures, including one of an abortion that happened after 20 weeks. One of the participants (the lesbian I think) asks "what about cases of rape?" This is brushed aside with the comment that "there are plenty of people out there who are willing to adopt." After that my flabber was well and truly ghasted.

I'm quite glad the rest of this weeks episode was devoted to the guy who's shagging around while his girlfriend is off at uni. Unfortunately showing him pictures of people with tertiary syphilis didn't put him off that week's boozing and clubbing session. Maybe if they'd told him that when the programme gets shown on national TV he's going to get dumped on his arse he might have listened, because Jesus clearly wasn't putting him off. In fact telling people he was trying to "live a Christian life" seemed to be working as a chat-up line!
The main problem with this program is that the biker was absolutely correct when he pointed out that "your not giving us reasons to believe in this". He is of course the "uncooperative" member of the group, and therefore makes for better TV. I wonder if the mild-mannered bearded chap will be so critical of him when the people running this project discover he's been flirting with Islam?

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The Evil Atheist Your Mother Warned You About

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