Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Genetic basis of complex adaptations

Last week, I was lucky enough to be able to attend a Kavli Frontiers of Science meeting in Potsdam, Germany. This is a unique meeting, in that it is a small (ie Less than 100 people). Most meetings are quite specialized, yet often quite large. The evolution meetings I often attend are usually over 1000 people, which is exciting, but sometimes intimidating. A goal of the Kavli meetings, sponsored by the National Academy of Science in the USA and the Alexander von Humboldt foundation in Germany, is to invite very talented young scientists, who are enthusiastic about communicating their research area to a non-specialist audience. John Logsdon, who was also at the meeting, describes the conference as akin opening an issue of Nature or Science, two of the premier cutting edge science journals in the world, and having an enthusiastic expert on hand to explain the research and answer questions. It’s really great fun to think about other science for a few days; a real mind expanding experience.

My job at this conference was to be an introductory speaker. There were eight sessions on diverse topics, and each session had an introducer like me, plus two speakers present their own research. My session was entitled “the evolution of complex adaptations”. Given the speakers who were involved (Hopi Hoekstra, Gerrit Begemann and I); we decided a good topic would be the genetic basis of evolutionary change. In some ways, this is slightly more general than the one chosen by the organizers, since there is a genetic basis to both complex and simple adaptations. I focused a bit on the recent controversy of whether regulatory or structural mutations are the primary source of variation in evolution (discussed in blogs, like pharyngula and here) – yet I still set the controversy in the context of complexity, to keep with the title of the session.

A great thing is that all the presentations were recorded. The audio is recorded, along with the Power Point slides, and presented in Flash format, all available online. So anyone can enjoy these amazing presentations. Previous year’s presentations are also available on the web. The NAS makes these available as part of their outreach mission. Below, I will link my presentation, for those interested in the origins of novelty, the subject of this blog. Of course check out all the presentations though – great fun!

Session: Evolution of Complex Adaptations

LINK: Introduction by Todd Oakley

As soon as they're up, I'll post links to the other talks in the session, and the meeting.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Louisiana's cry for help

I'm on vacation in Europe now and not writing any blog entries for a few weeks, but I am checking email once in a while. This came through an evolutionists mailing list, calling for help in Louisiana to fight the anti-evolution legislature. It's reached emergency status, and I post it here:

From: "Barbara Forrest"
Date: June 18, 2008 11:08:42 AM PDT
Subject: Help needed immediately for Louisiana

You all no doubt know what is happening down here. We have the point
at which the only possible measure we have left is to raise an
outcry from around the country that Gov. Jindal has to hear. He
won't respond, but we have to at least make some noise. What is
happening in Louisiana has national implications, much to the
delight of the Discovery Institute.

SB 733, the LA Science Education Act, has passed both houses of the
legislature and the governor has indicated that he intends to sign
it. But we don't have to be quiet about this. There is something
that you and everyone else you know who wants to help can do:
The LA Coalition for Science has posted a press release and an open
letter to Jindal asking him to veto the bill.

It is time for a groundswell of contacts to Jindal, and *this must
be done immediately* since we don't know when he will sign the
bill. The vote in the legislature is veto-proof, so any request for
Jindal to veto the bill *must stress that the governor can make this
veto stick if he wants it to stick*. Please contact everyone you
know and ask them to contact the governor's office and ask him to
veto the bill. If you have a blog, blog this. If you have friendly
contacts in your address book, please ask them to also contact the
governor's office.

The contact information is at the LCFS link above. We want people
all over the country to do this, as many as possible. Here are the
talking points:

Point 1: The Louisiana law, SB 733, the LA Science Education Act,
has national implications. So far, this legislation has failed in
every other state where it was proposed, except in Michigan, where
it remains in committee. By passing SB 733, Louisiana has set a
dangerous precedent that will benefit the Discovery Institute by
helping them to advance their strategy to get intelligent design
creationism into public schools. Louisiana is only the beginning.
Other states will now be encouraged to pass such legislation, and
the Discovery Institute has already said that they will continue
their push to get such legislation passed.

Point 2: Since Gov. Jindal's support for teaching ID clearly helped
to get this bill passed in the first place, his decision to veto it
will stick if he lets the legislature know that he wants it to stick.

Point 3: Simply allowing the bill to become law without his
signature does not absolve the governor of the responsibility for
protecting the public school science classes of Louisiana. He must
veto the bill to show that he is serious about improving Louisiana
by improving education. Anything less than a veto means that the
governor is giving a green light to creationists to undermine the
education of Louisianachildren.

I have given you the talking points here. You can pull additional
ones from the LCFS press release and our online letter.

Now let's get them out! Contact the governor. Then contact your
friends, and ask them to contract the governor and to ask all of
their friends to do the same. We need to create a huge network of e-
mails asking people to do this. Where they live does not matter at
this point. What is happening in Louisiana has implications for
everyone in the nation.


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Souvenirs, Darwin, Dawkins, Von Baer, and Cash

On my last overseas trip (to the UK), I returned with two souvenirs. The first, which I bought from a bookstore, was an excerpt of Richard Dawkins' Climbing Mount Improbable, entitled The View From Mount Improbable. Climbing Mount Improbably is a linear thinking manifesto, equating living species with ancestral species, to sketch a linear march up a ladder of progress. The View From Mt Improbable is the chapter on eye evolution (my specialty). [To be fair to Dawkins, Ancestor's Tale, represents an outstanding way to teach tree thinking, so he is not all about linear thinking]. As far as I know The View From Mt Improbable cannot be purchased in the US, so I was ecstatic to be able to snatch one up and bring it home.

The second souvenir brings me to today's post. I returned with a Ten Pound Darwin note as my second souvenir. When Michael Barton left a comment here with a link to his outstanding blog devoted to Darwin, I noticed that he mentioned this Darwin note, one copy of which sits under glass in a display-case coffee table in our living room. Also linked on Michael's site is a pictorial collection of scientists on world currency. I find this fantastic, and I think I will try to collect these.

Also, I actually have a bill along side Darwin in my coffee table that is not pictured on the site linked above. Friends and colleagues who know I collect world currency for my display table often will donate to the cause. A Estonian postdoc who worked in my lab donated an Estonian bill with a picture of the famous developmental biologist Karl Ernst von Baer. He was German but worked at Tartu University in Estonia for a long time. Here is a scan of that bill. Now I need to go find out how to get an Israeli note with Einstein pictured on it!