For a time, superorganisms were all the rage. The concept dealt neatly with what Charles Darwin had called the 'problem' with social insects. Darwin's theory of evolution proposed that natural selection worked on individuals and the fittest individuals bred with others similarly fit to their ecological niche, while the less fit were less likely to reproduce. The problem with social insects was that while single termites seem to be individuals, they do not function as such. Only the queen and king of a colony breed, so who was the 'individual'? By declaring the whole colony the individual, Wheeler said its members made up 'a living whole bent on preserving its moving equilibrium and its integrity'.
In the late 1920s and early 30s, the paradigm of the superorganism grew colossal. Instead of studying individual trees, biologists studied forests as superorganisms. By 1931, the concept snuck into popular culture when Aldous Huxley reportedly based the dictatorship in Brave New World on humans as social insects, with five castes. Wheeler proposed that 'trophallaxis' '" a word he invented for the way insects regurgitate and share food among themselves '" was the secret sauce, the superglue of societies both insect and human, and the foundation of economics. But even during the superorganism's heyday, Marais was alone in his assertion that the mound had a soul.
Turns out, the mound more or less does have a 'soul.'
In Namibia, I went to meet J Scott Turner, an American biologist who has spent decades studying how and why termites build their mounds. It took Turner years of experiments to show that mounds could work a bit like lungs, with interconnected chambers taking advantage of fluctuations in wind speed. Air moves back and forth through the porous dirt skin of the mound by two systems: in big puffs driven by buoyant gases rising from the hot fungus nest (like the sharp intake of breath from the diaphragm), and in small puffs, the way air wheezily diffuses between alveoli in your lungs. Turner suspected that the termites themselves circulated air as they moved, like mobile alveoli. This insight was an entirely new way of thinking about the problem. The mound was not a simple structure where air happened to move, but a continuously morphing complex contraption consisting of dirt and termites together manipulating airflow.
Termites are often compared to architects for the way they build their mounds, but that is misleading because they don't have plans or a global vision. What they really have is an aesthetic, an innate sense of how things should feel. When the top of the spire was first ripped off, there were just a few termites in the solitary tunnels at the top, probably listening to the clopping of their own six feet. But cutting into the top allowed in lots of fresh air at once, and activated an alarm system. Some termites ran away from the hole, agitating their brothers and sisters so they could help with repairs. Thousands of worker termites followed the smell of fresh air to find the hole, carrying balls of dirt in their mouths'
Ever since the decoding of the human genome in 2003, genetic research has been focused heavily on understanding genes so that they could be read like tea leaves to predict an individual's future and, perhaps, help them stave off disease.
A new USC Dornsife study suggests a reason why that prediction has been so challenging, even for the most-studied diseases and disorders: The relationship between an individual's genes, environment, and traits can significantly change when a single, new mutation is introduced.
"Individuals have genetic and environmental differences that cause these mutations to show different effects, and those make it difficult to predict how mutations will behave, " said Ian Ehrenreich, a lead author and biologist at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. "For example, mutations that break the cell's ability to perform DNA mismatch repair are linked to colorectal cancer, but some individuals that harbor these mutations never develop the disease."
A growing number of large-scale, genome-wide association studies have revealed which genes are linked to certain diseases, behaviors or other traits. These studies overlook how interactions between genetic differences, the environment, and new mutations - what scientists have termed "background effects" - differ from individual to individual.
"Mutations that behave unpredictably are most likely quite rare. However, that makes them difficult to detect and measure in those studies," Ehrenreich said.Paper.(open access) '" Martin N. Mullis, Takeshi Matsui, Rachel Schell, Ryan Foree, Ian M. Ehrenreich. The complex underpinnings of genetic background effects. Nature Communications, 2018; 9 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-06023-5 More.
See also: New goal: 66k animal genomes to be mapped Given how much genome mapping has done to debunk straightforward Darwinism, just from the genomes released to date, however complete, one can only guess at what all 66k would do.
Now they tell us. But how did his followers get it so wrong? Or were they just funning us all these years?
Re Revisiting the Origin of Species: The Other Darwins (Thierry Hoquet, CRC Press, August 13, 2018):
Contemporary interest in Darwin rises from a general ideal of what Darwin's books ought to contain: a theory of transformation of species by natural selection. However, a reader opening Darwin's masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, today may be struck by the fact that this "selectionist" view does not deliver the key to many aspects of the book. Without contesting the importance of natural selection to Darwinism, much less supposing that a fully-formed "Darwinism" stepped out of Darwin's head in 1859, this innovative volume aims to return to the text of the Origin itself.
Revisiting the 'Origin of Species' focuses on Darwin as theorising on the origin of variations; showing that Darwin himself was never a pan-selectionist (in contrast to some of his followers) but was concerned with "other means of modification" (which makes him an evolutionary pluralist). Furthermore, in contrast to common textbook presentations of "Darwinism", Hoquet stresses the fact that On the Origin of Species can lend itself to several contradictory interpretations. Thus, this volume identifies where rival interpretations have taken root; to unearth the ambiguities readers of Darwin have latched onto as they have produced a myriad of Darwinian legacies, each more or less faithful enough to the originator's thought. More.
Thierry Hoquet is a philosopher and historian of science. One wonders, is the new pluralist Darwin a result of the current problems with where 'some of his followers' have landed his theory?
Ediacaran fossils have a slightly bizarre appearance not shared by any modern animal groups. For decades, researchers believed these enigmatic fossils were ecologically simple. However, borrowing a method from modern ecology - fitting species to relative abundance distributions - Vanderbilt University paleontologist Simon A.F. Darroch and his team learned that these organisms were more like modern animals than once thought.
The analyses showed that a majority of fossil assemblages bear the hallmarks of being ecologically complex, and Ediacara biota were forming complex communities tens of millions of years before the Cambrian explosion. The creatures lived partially submerged in what was once the ocean floor, some of them suspension feeding, others filter feeding, still others passively absorbing nutrition. A few were even mobile.
Complex communities are ones that comprise species competing for numerous different resources or species that create niches for others (as in many modern-day ecosystems). The team found that the signature of complex communities extends all the way back to the oldest Ediacaran fossils. In other words, as soon as macroscopic life evolved, it began forming diverse ecological communities not unlike those in the present day.
"Supporting a simple model would suggest that these mysterious organisms were universally primitive, sharing the same basic ecology and all competing for the same resources," he said. "Support for the complex model would instead suggest that they likely competed for a variety of different resources, just like modern animals. Our analyses support the complex model, illustrating that - even though they may look bizarre - these mysterious fossils may have far more in common with modern animals than we thought." Paper. (paywall) '" Simon A. F. Darroch, Marc Laflamme, Peter J. Wagner. High ecological complexity in benthic Ediacaran communities. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 2018; DOI: 10.1038/s41559-018-0663-7 More.
In short, there was no long, slow, Darwinian development of complex communities. We need a word for this: How about' ecological creationism?
Efforts to enable machines to read our emotions are hitting a roadblock and, oddly enough, Charles Darwin (1809-1882), founder of popular evolution theory, plays a role in getting it wrong:
The world is being flooded with technology designed to monitor our emotions. Amazon's Alexa is one of many virtual assistants that detect tone and timbre of voice in order to better understand commands. CCTV cameras can track faces through public space, and supposedly detect criminals before they commit crimes. Autonomous cars will one day be able to spot when drivers get road rage, and take control of the wheel.
But there's a problem. While the technology is cutting-edge, it's using an outdated scientific concept stating that all humans, everywhere, experience six basic emotions, and that we each express those emotions in the same way. By building a world filled with gadgets and surveillance systems that take this model as gospel, this obsolete view of emotion could end up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, as a vast range of human expressions around the world is forced into a narrow set of definable, machine-readable boxes. Dr Rich Firth-Godbehere, "Silicon Valley thinks everyone feels the same six emotions" at Quartz
How did we decide that there were only six emotions? The theatre would be impoverished and the fiction rack destitute if'
Psychologist Paul Ekman, billed at his website as 'The world's deception detection expert, co-discoverer of micro expressions and the inspiration behind the hit series, Lie to Me,' originated the idea.' His interest in psychology began with a tragedy: His mother committed suicide when he was 14.
The conventional view at the time, represented by, for example, Margaret Mead (1901'"1978), was that emotions are multifarious and fluid. But Ekman was drawn to Darwin's idea that we have evolved universal emotions from an animal past. In the 1960s, he did research in New Guinea among the Fore people who had allegedly had little contact with Europeans and, we are told, 'this work strongly suggested that emotional facial expressions are biologically determined, as Darwin had predicted.' Emotions even machine could read.
In 1955, Firth-Godbehere tells us, Mead regarded Darwin's claims, advanced in the 1872 essay to which she wrote a foreword, 'The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,' as 'a historical curiosity.' But in 1998, Ekman was the one to write the foreword and he defended them, leading a consensus.
'Six emotions' thinking found its way into popular culture, in part via Lie to Me (2009'"2011), where the curiously named 'Cal Lightman', played by Tim Roth, is 'the world's leading deception expert who studies facial expressions and involuntary body language to expose the truth behind the lies.'
Is the future of jobs over? Should people be paid to let machines do the work? Recently, there have been short-term limited experiments with a Universal Basic Income but it's hard to evaluate a transformative social policy with such limited and cherry-picked data. And, says Richards, paying people not to work would simply slow their move into the job markets of the digital age.
Coconuts go high tech. Plastics from coconut waste offer economic benefit to poor farmers from crop waste. One of Walter Bradley's longstanding goals as an engineer and materials scientist has been to harness advanced materials technology to help the world's poor, most of whom are poor farmers.
The true cost of 'free' social media It's free but' are we? George Gilder points a way forward. He thinks that expected massive increases in computing power will enable blockchain technologies that allow users to safely bypass the global data monopoly that Google and similar firms represent.
The Vertebrate Genomes Project aims to sequence every extant vertebrate species'-there are about 66,000'-and to make them of the highest possible value.
'What we thought was a 'genome' back [when G10K was launched] really wasn't suitable for in-depth studies,' G10K cofounder David Haussler, a computational biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, tells Science. 'I think we've reached a turning point.' Jef Akst, "Massive Animal Sequencing Effort Releases First Set of Genomes" at The Scientist
Given how much genome mapping has done to debunk straightforward Darwinism, just from the genomes released to date, however complete, one can only guess at what all 66k would do.
It was nice to see the Canada lynx in the mix of the newly released ones.
In one video, you can see a hungry caterpillar, first working around a leaf's edges, approaching the base of the leaf and, with one last bite, severing it from the rest of the plant. Within seconds, a blaze of fluorescent light washes over the other leaves, a signal that they should prepare for future attacks by the caterpillar or its kin.
That fluorescent light tracks calcium as it zips across the plant's tissues, providing an electrical and chemical signal of a threat. In more than a dozen videos like this, University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor of Botany Simon Gilroy and his lab reveal how glutamate - an abundant neurotransmitter in animals - activates this wave of calcium when the plant is wounded. The videos provide the best look yet at the communication systems within plants that are normally hidden from view.
Imagine that. Communications systems in plants.
In response to each kind of damage, videos show the plants lighting up as calcium flows from the site of damage to other leaves. The signal moved quickly, about one millimeter per second. That's just a fraction of the speed of animal nerve impulses, but it's lightning fast in the plant world - quick enough to spread out to other leaves in just a couple minutes. It took just a few more minutes for defense-related hormone levels to spike in distant leaves. These defense hormones help prepare the plant for future threats by, for example, increasing the levels of noxious chemicals to ward off predators.
The study connects decades of research that has revealed how plants, often seen as inert, dynamically respond to threats by preparing distant tissues to deal with future attacks. Glutamate leads to calcium leads to defense hormones and altered growth and biochemistry, all without a nervous system. Paper. (paywall) '" Masatsugu Toyota, Dirk Spencer, Satoe Sawai-Toyota, Wang Jiaqi, Tong Zhang, Abraham J. Koo, Gregg A. Howe, Simon Gilroy. Glutamate triggers long-distance, calcium-based plant defense signaling. Science, 2018; 361 (6407): 1112 DOI: 10.1126/science.aat7744 More.
And how much time elapsed during which these intricate systems developed, purely as a result of natural selection acting on random mutations (the official Darwinian view)?
Using the fossil record to accurately estimate the timing and pace of past mass extinctions is no easy task, and a new study highlights how fossil evidence can produce a misleading picture if not interpreted with care.
Florida Museum of Natural History researchers used a series of 130-foot cores drilled from the Po Plain in northeastern Italy to test a thought experiment: Imagine catastrophe strikes the Adriatic Sea, swiftly wiping out modern marine life. Could this hypothetical mass extinction be reconstructed correctly from mollusks - hard-shelled animals such as oysters and mussels - preserved in these cores?
When they examined the cores, the results were "somewhat unnerving," said Michal Kowalewski, Thompson Chair of Invertebrate Paleontology and the study's principal investigator.
Paleontologists use the age of a species' last-known fossil to estimate the timing of extinction. A sudden extinction in the Adriatic Sea today should leave the youngest remains of many mollusk species in the sediments currently forming on the shore and seabed, the "ground zero" of the hypothetical extinction event. But the team found only six of 119 mollusk species - all of which are still alive in the area - at the top of the cores. Instead, the last fossil examples of many of these species often appeared in clusters dotted throughout the cores, suggesting smaller bursts of extinctions over a longer timeline, not a single massive die-off.
Taken at face value, the cores presented a dramatically distorted record of both the timing and tempo of extinction, potentially calling into question some of the methods paleontologists commonly use to interpret past mass extinctions.
"We're not saying you cannot study mass extinctions. You can," Kowalewski said. "What we're saying is that the nature of the geological record is complicated, so it is not trivial to decipher it correctly."
Here's one example of the difficulties:
The problem is a phenomenon known as the Signor-Lipps effect: Because the fossil record is incompletely sampled, the last-known fossil of a given species is almost certainly not the last member of that species, which muddles our ability to date extinctions. Paper. oa12 '" Rafa" Nawrot, Daniele Scarponi, Michele Azzarone, Troy A. Dexter, Kristopher M. Kusnerik, Jacalyn M. Wittmer, Alessandro Amorosi, Micha" Kowalewski. Stratigraphic signatures of mass extinctions: ecological and sedimentary determinants. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2018; 285 (1886): 20181191 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2018.1191 More.
Indeed. It's hard to get a clear picture of evolution without a clear picture of extinction and stasis (nothing happens for tens of millions of years): What worked, what didn't work, and what didn't seem to need any changes? It's great to know someone even care about extinctions.
So many lecterns may have been splintered in vain.
The governing body of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, founded 1848, voted Saturday to enact a policy under which an elected AAAS Fellow's lifetime honor can be revoked for proven scientific misconduct or serious breaches of professional ethics.
The AAAS Council adopted and approved the new policy that includes procedures AAAS will follow in considering the revocation of an elected AAAS Fellow's status. The action came during a special meeting of the AAAS Council, a member-elected body that includes the AAAS board of directors, at AAAS' Washington, D.C. headquarters.
The new policy will go into effect on October 15, 2018. AAAS issued a related statement on the policy and notified its membership.
Margaret A. Hamburg, AAAS president and chair of the AAAS Council, said the Fellow Revocation Policy 'provides a mechanism and procedure for AAAS to consider and act to revoke the status of an elected AAAS Fellow 'in cases of proven scientific misconduct, serious breaches of professional ethics, or when the Fellow in the view of AAAS no longer merits the status of Fellow.''
Breaches of professional ethics might include sexual misconduct, racial discrimination, or other ethical violations. Sexual harassment or retaliation for declining, objecting to, or reporting harassment or other sexual conduct may constitute a serious breach of professional ethics. This policy covers professional activities wherever they take place. This includes, but is not limited to, academic buildings, laboratories, field sites, research stations, field course venues, professional meetings, or any such professional settings. This policy includes interactions with persons such as, but not limited to, colleagues, subordinates, students, teaching or research assistants or others with whom the Fellow interacts as part of the Fellow's professional activities.
The focus here would seem to be harassment rather than research fraud. A friend tells us that what AAAS has in view is incidents like the ones we've noted pertaining to Francisco Ayala and Larry Krauss. Ayala was president of AAAS in 1995.
We must hope it works out that way. One worry is that the use of expulsion will grow, encompassing the expulsion of anyone who develops intellectual doubts about various current claims about which Academy members are expected to be of one mind, say, climate change, Darwinism, or whatever later becomes a shibboleth.
The difficulty is, progressives may regard honest differences of opinion about the interpretation of evidence as 'unsafe' situations. For the progressive, it is harassment!
Our physics color commentator Rob Sheldon offers a comment on whether simple probabilities can outweigh 'deep learning' (as noted earlier here. )
When neural nets [computer programs that mimic the human brain] were all the rage in physics, some 25 years ago, I spoke with the author of a paper who was using neural nets to predict space weather. After a year of playing with predictive abilities of various 1-level, 2-level and higher node nets, he confided that they reached a certain level of ability and then failed to improve. What made them better, he told me, was having more physics inserted into the model.
That is, the nets couldn't recreate Newton's Laws, and if presented with just raw data, would perform very poorly because they didn't conserve energy, didn't conserve momentum, and generally predicted worse than college freshman. The real power of nets, was to extend a physical model past the limits of our physical understanding. In the future, a better physical understanding will make the models better, and once again the nets will underperform. Therefore the nets are not a substitute for understanding, they are a substitute for ignorance.