The Opposing Thumb

An opinionated digit leafs through the biological literature
Monday Morning Smörgåsbord

The Monday Morning Smörgåsbord

This week I’ve decided to highlight only texts from science blogs around the web. There is a lot of great writing out there, much of it far superior in content and style to science communication in traditional media outlets.

We’ll kick-off with John Hutchinson‘s What’s in John’s Freezer? Hutchinson is Professor of Evolutionary Biomechanics at the Royal Veterinary College, and writes that his blog got started when science writer Ed Yong visited his lab and “got a kick out of the freezers full of outrageously awesome animals that are my pride and joy.” His latest post, Aren’t Adaptations Special?, looks back on an extremely influential essay by Stephen Jay Gould & Richard Lewontin, “The Spandrels of San Marco”. Hutchinson states his position on the controversial paper at the outset: “I love it despite its many flaws that people have pointed out to seemingly no end- the inaccurate architectural spandrel analogy, the Gouldian discursive (overly parenthetical [I’m a recovering victim of reading too much Gould as an undergrad]) writing style, the perhaps excessive usage of “Look at some classic non-scientific literature I can quote”, the straw men and so on. I won’t belabour those; again your favourite literature search engine can be your guide through that dense bibliography of critiques. I love it because it is so daringly iconoclastic, and because I think it is still an accurate criticism of what a LOT of scientists who do research overlapping with evolutionary biology (that is, much of biology itself) do.” 

My next pick is a bit of Russian doll. The blog Why Evolution is True is run by University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne (incidentally a student of Richard Lewontin, who you may remember from the previous paragraph). Much of Coyne’s blog is given over to the unhappy task of suffering fools grumpily, as he frequently engages with creationists, intelligent designers and the rest of the moronalia that uniquely plagues (though Tony Blair did his level best, with some success, to bring the bug over to the UK educational system) American discussions on Evolution. He also has some regular guest writers, one of whom is Matthew Cobb, Professor of Zoology at the University of Manchester. Cobb, whose lab studies courtship behavior in flies, writes books and essays on the history of science (and not only, he is also a historian of the French Resistance). His latest post is on the question ‘why is the genetic code not universal?’ “Glendon Wu, an immunology PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in with a question. He was in a lecture the other day and learned that mitochondria – small energy-producing structures found in the cells of all multicellular organisms and also some single celled organisms like yeast (this group is called the eukaryotes) – contain a different genetic code to the rest of us. In other words, your cells contain two different versions of the genetic code – one for your human DNA, the other for the DNA in your mitochondria. Glendon was understandably intrigued about this and wanted to know more.” 

Next up, Anne Buchanan at The Mermaid’s Tale. MT is a collective blog with some very good writers, but Buchanan is my favorite. She’s an anthropologist at U Penn, and here is a recent post on the challenges of eliminating malaria, reminding us that the disease’s geography was very different, very recently: “Carlo Levi (1902 – 1975) was an Italian painter, writer and physician.  Because of his political activism during the fascist era, he was exiled to a small southern town in Lucania, where he spent several years painting, writing and attending to the medical needs of the inhabitants there.  He wrote about this time in his book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, published in 1945.  It’s a fascinating story; political, ethnographic, scientific (or quasi so).  Malaria was a fact of life in southern Italy at the time,  and Levi mentions it often in the book.”

We’ll close with another blogger-scientist from the University of Manchester, Casey Bergman. Bergman’s lab works on genome structure and evolution, and he has been something of a pioneer in promoting science on twitter- more than one researcher has said that Bergman inspired (or convinced) them to get on social media. Here is one of his more popular posts, on the future of academic research: “Crucially, Price pointed out that the doubling time of the number of scientists is much shorter than the doubling time of the overall human population (~50 years). Thus, the proportion of scientists relative to the total human population has been increasing for decades, if not centuries. Price makes the startling but obvious outcomes of this observation very clear: either everyone on earth will be a scientist one day, or the growth rate of science must decrease from its previous long-term trends.”

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