Thursday, May 2, 2013

Carnival of Evolution #59: A letter from the Doctor

Dear Wilfred,

Are you still watching the stars with your new telescope?  I bet you can see what I see outside the windows of my TARDIS. The star you're searching for is still there, it just tends to fall out of view occasionally. 

Do you remember how you always said how you'd love to be travelling with me again through the skies? I envy you right now, living on this wonderful planet in your lovely little house treating yourself to a flask of tea on your porch while you look at the stars. They're beautiful, I would know, I live amongst them and I've traveled to so many. I’ve seen galaxies born and fading away.

But what is it with your little blue planet that makes me coming back so often?  Is it its people that are so brilliant and clever and funny and everything I'd ever want in companions? I don’t know and that means a lot to somebody who has been at the beginning and the end of the universe. Or maybe it’s the way how life evolved since the days your planet was not more than just another rock in a sidearm of an inconspicuous galaxy. 

Oh, you humans are so clever. Take this evolution thing. I watched you over the last month.  It is fascinating want you are working on and what you have found out so far (and what not). Who would have thought how much playing games can advance your knowledge? So much more...

...Let me see - there was the question if humans think that cancer can evolve. Here a brilliant answer from students of Emory University:

At Bioblog by Biotunes I found another piece on the fact that tumors are heterogeneous populations of cells that evolve, and should be treated as such.

Poor little mortal humans, a lot of what I learned revolved around your own species and people reflected on an old question tested by research (is size really that important?), or on an old debate about why menopause exists, and finally you wonder how humans developed the ability to talk about all this.

So many fascinating creatures inhabit your little blue ball. There is the fossa with its unique mating system. During the breeding season large numbers of males gather at traditional mating trees which are occupied by small groups of up to three females. Another piece in the puzzle of the evolution of group-living from solitary ancestors as some male fossas go it alone while others form associations.

Or the little mites that can teach us something about the theory of harvest-induced selection, a framework in which it is thought that high trait-selective harvesting rates lead to a change in the frequency of traits in a population, diminishing the type of animal or plant that the harvester is seeking.

Or the unique mud snails unique in New Zealand with sexual and asexual individuals of the same species teaching you something about how sexual and asexual reproduction affect the genome.

Or moths that might play a role in the pollinator-mediated speciation of the Joshua tree. Or how the salt-loving halophile bacteria evolved through massive horizontal gene transfer. Or that whales and monkeys helped you to understand that animals can learn from each other in ways that create different cultures in the wild.

Ah, yes, and the coelacanth genome has been sequenced. Great news, but a couple of earthlings stumbled over the idea of them evolving slowly, questioning the interpretation of the data, while others simply celebrated the accomplishment.

You wonder if evolution is predictable and if results are unpredictable, does it make them any less true?

I have so much enjoyed reading about the old thinkers such as Huxley, Williams, Bintliff and Gould, and this new book on randomness in evolution. Marc Srour is not the only one wondering why there is such a kerfuffle about this as evolution has a significant random component. Mutations can be random, genetic drift is random and there is hopefully no doubt that both play a big role in the evolution of species. Well, there is but don't get me started on this group of inveterate ignorants. You have a couple of eloquent, outspoken, wise proponents of reason that can deal with them much better. By the way, don't miss this one:

It's sort of quiet...The TARDIS and I have decided to be alone for a while. Don't want to cause too much trouble (you are very good in that without me)! We also have a paradox to solve. Who is she?

Well...must be off things to do and shelves to put up!

You'll see me again one day. Until Then...keep watching!

Your ever grateful and faithful friend,

The Doctor.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to this month's Carnival of Evolution (CoE)! Want to submit posts for next month? Go to the BlogCarnivals form. Just as importantly, the Carnival always needs hosts! If you'd like to host the Carnival, please send an email to Bjørn Østman (I think there is still no host for the coming 60th Carnival).

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