Saturday, December 31, 2005

How Much of an Explosion was the Cambian Explosion?

A very cool new post on Pharyngula examines new research attempting to work out the phylogeny of animal phyla. As a bonus, there's an important place for fungi in this work -- always a good thing. More on the fungi below.

The researchers compared the sequences of 50 genes in 9 phyla to try to create a family tree. (I am under the impression that this is way more genes than are normally used for systematics. Is this correct?) Some of the branch points could be resolved fine, but it was not possible to distinguish branching times for others. Various modifications, detailed in the Pharyngula post, didn't help. The conclusion? The Cambrian explosion 543 million years ago was quite rapid, so branching times are too close together to be sorted out by the methods used.

As one of their tests of this idea, the investigators tried the same techniques on fungal phylogeny, since fungal evolution appears to lack anything like the Cambrian explosion. Walla! The methods worked just fine, producing a clean and reasonable family tree. This research agrees with the fossil record, suggesting that the Cambrian explosion was a real event.

Now, anyone who can refer to events that took tens of millions of years as an "explosion" is either a geologist or an evolutionary biologist. The term is confusing to laypeople and plays into the hands of creationists. "Rapid adaptive radiation" is too technical, plus the word "radiation" doesn't help. My poetic side wants to borrow Brian Swimme's renaming of the Big Bang and call the event the "animal flaring forth", but that suffers from the same problems as "explosion". How about "animal branching out"?

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | US boy's answer to a school essay on Iraq: take a trip to Baghdad

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | US boy's answer to a school essay on Iraq: take a trip to Baghdad

Farris Hassan is one of the coolest people I have heard of in a long time. In an earlier age, he may have run off to be a sailor or have become an explorer. Yes, going to Baghdad is a dangerous thing to do. Precisely for this reason, it takes savvy and daring.

In this safety-obsessed society, we need kids like Hassan. I wish him well.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Evolve -- A Song That Gets It Right

A group in the Pacific Northwest, Gaia Consort, performs music that might be described as secular pagan folk rock. One of their songs, "Evolve" has got to be the coolest thing I've heard in a long time.

Life teaches life teaches life teaches life
One thing: evolve

Not only does this make me think of Chris Adami's work on increasing information content in evolution (although Adami, at least in what I've read of him, doesn't specifically address co-evolution), it really appeals to the ecology buff in me. Living things adapt to one another, whether in arms races or mutually beneficial relationships. "Life teaches life" is a beautiful way of saying this.

There's a full-length live version of the song on the Gaia Consort homepage (scroll down). I might use it for a celebration of the origin of life.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Hello World!

OK, so I really ought to be studying for a physicochemical biology midterm. Instead, I'm creating a blog. I've thought about starting one for a while, so you'd think it could wait -- but have this weird habit of doing things precisely when I don't have time to do them.

I am a student, an ecology geek and interested in life, the Universe and everything. (Really -- I'm a member of UCLA's Astrobiology Society.) The idea is to search for patterns and try to put things together. Expect posts on ecology, space, world citizenship, big history, bizarre connections, speculations and a fair amount of miscellany.