Op-Ed: Nye wipes the floor with Ham

By Daniel Gareau Bill Nye and Ken Ham. Images courtesy of BillNye.com and AnswersInGenesis.org There is a growing movement to teach creationism in parallel with evolution in K-12 science classrooms.  In Kentucky, “change over time” replaced “evolution,” opening the door for creation as a viable alternative. Commonly known as “teach the controversy,” this movement is obviously problematic as it threatens the integrity of the scientific process. To help shed a mainstream spotlight on this issue, Bill Nye of “Science Guy” fame and creationist Ken Ham staged a public debate on the topic: “Is creation a viable model of origins in today's modern scientific era?” However, despite good intentions from Nye, this event was met with skepticism among scientists and atheists alike. The temptation to debate creationists should be resisted according to opinions published by The Scientist and many others.  The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science released an article shortly before the debate stating that Mr. Nye (with an honorary PhD) was not qualified to engage is such a debate and that, in this context, the author feared that the argued cases would be framed as equal. This viewpoint is in line with Richard Dawkins himself, who likens teaching creationism in the science classroom to child abuse. The non-confrontational logic shared

Tiny, parasitic wasps are really cool. (5 reasons why I spent two years watching wasp sex)

In college, I spent two years of my life asking: when two species of wasps mate, why do their hybrid offspring die? To try and figure this out, I watched wasps have sex, counted the eggs they laid after mating, counted any adults that survived from those eggs, mated the survivors to other wasps, ground them up, and checked one of their genes to see if it was more like one of their parents or the other. After two years, I left the project and lab behind, and still had no idea why hybrid offspring die... until now. A new Science paper demonstrates that I spent my two years looking in entirely the wrong place. It isn’t the wasps’ genes that cause their hybrid offspring to die: it’s their microbiome. Specifically, it is the types of bacteria that the mothers leave behind when they lay their eggs. When the authors added a few specific types of bacteria to hybrid eggs, almost all of the offspring survived. It’s incredibly satisfying to see this question finally answered, and the authors have also done a great job translating their work and putting out lots of resources like the original research paper in Science,

Evolution by Aesthetic Design

By Maryam Zaringhalam, @thisisartlab Biological evolution is the change in gene frequencies in populations over successive generations through forces like mutation, natural selection, and genetic drift. But at its most basic conceptual level, evolution is simply change over time. Since life is not stagnant, but perpetually moving forward, we can make analogies between evolution and just about anything we experience. But how can we use these analogies to glean something meaningful about our experiences? In an experiment called DarwinTunes, bioinformatician Robert MacCallum at Imperial College London put the analogy into practice in an attempt to evolve music from noise.  By applying basic evolutionary principles, he hoped to gain some insight into what aural // aesthetic forces underlie audience experience of music. For musical evolution to proceed, MacCullum and his team first generated a population of noises—the origin for [Darwinian] musicality to come. Because the origin of life was devoid of any human intervention, they used an algorithm to generate a series of computer programs, or "digital genomes," thereby limiting their influence on the generative process. Just as our DNA genomes hold all the information needed to build us, each program specifies how to build a particular short sound loop by determining

Pigeons: Darwin’s Unappreciated Avian Assistant

By Michael Wheelock, @MSWheelock The Fallacy of Finches If I contribute as much to science as the pigeon has, I’ll consider my career an overwhelming success. Why? Because pigeons were instrumental in helping Darwin argue for evolution by natural selection. “Wait a second Mike,” you might be thinking, “don’t you mean finches?” Absolutely not, but I know where you’re coming from. In middle school, I was taught that Darwin encountered finches (pictured below) while island hopping in the Galapagos, a series of volcanic islands off the coast of Ecuador. Source: http://beacon-center.org, reprint from Darwin’s Journal of Researches Darwin noticed that on each island, the shape and size of finch beaks correlated with their available food sources. For example, short and stout beaks were well suited for eating seeds from the ground, whereas long, pointed beaks were ideal for eating fruits. This led him to speculate that all of the finches were derived from a single species that had traveled from mainland South America via wind, and adapted differently on each island over time. Ultimately, this inspired him to propose the idea of evolution by natural selection in his book On the Origin of Species, published in 1860. Unfortunately,

Creativity is Cool (Happy Birthday Charles Darwin)

By Emily Jane Dennis,@emilyjanedennis Creativity is cool. Today is Darwin’s birthday. Instead of talking about his life or how he made everything in biology make sense, I want to talk about two of his drawings. Darwin’s first (left, 1837) and final (right, 1859) evolutionary trees These two drawings, separated by 22 years, are a perfect illustration of the creative process in scientific thought. On the left is the first ever evolutionary tree, and on the right is Darwin’s final tree from On the Origin of Species.When he sketched out this first tree, Darwin had already spent years coming up with and expanding on his idea of transmutation (what we call evolution). I think about this drawing as a proof, a way to visually evaluate what he had been mulling over for so many years. He used this figure to take a bunch of independent thoughts and pull them together to address one big question: how do the species we see today relate to species that existed in the distant past? I like to believe that the “I think” above Darwin’s first tree drawing is a glimpse into his inner-critic. It was written by that doubting voice inside his head, urging him to find