All posts by Kai

Charles Darwin: Great Biologist, or GREATEST Biologist?

This was originally written for the Darwin Day celebration on the 12th. Subsequently I was urged to put it on the blog, and so I have.

Today is the 200th aniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday, and this year is the 150th aniversary of the first edition of On the Origin of Species.

For many people, its easy to write Darwin off as a nobody who just happened to stumble on to the greatest revolution the biological sciences have ever seen, to write him as a clergyman who couldn’t do anything, a wannabe doctor that couldn’t stand the sight of blood right so he took a voyage on a ship named after a breed of dog and stared at some finches for a while, thus having a eureka moment.

That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Darwin was not just some guy who by chance founded evolutionary biology, he was a biological genius. He was the Issac Newton of the biological sciences. Darwin knew everything that had been written about biology back then. He was an equal to the best of the best in geology, botany and ornithology. He was a world expert on coral reefs, bees, beetles, carnivorous plants, pigeons, earthworms, orchids, and especially, ESPECIALLY, he was the world expert on barnacles. He was also a prolific writer, having many publications and over 20000 non published papers. Darwin also had an excellent memory and the sort of mind that found the perfect question to ask. This, all this, from a non academic who dropped out of medical school from the fear of blood, a failed clergyman, and a person who suffered from sickness (possibly chaggas disease) through out the the later portion of his life, allowing him to be active no more than 2-3 hours a day.

When you read On the Origin of Species carefully (first edition or WAYSA?), the genius of this person is so obvious. There is hardly a page where he does not anticipate some future aspect of biology or ecology, many of those 100 years ahead of his time. He does it so casually too, throwing short summaries of experiments he conducted which are so profound yet he gives so little time to. In a page he discovers mutualism, or anticipates the concept of a niche, or island biogeography, or population models. He was SO CLOSE to grasping the mechanism of inheritance; you can see him just out of reach throughout the text, and he died before he could discover Mendel’s work on peas and allele crossing.

So, as a biologist this is a great day for a great human, the greatest biologist, the founder of so many sciences, but I think it is also a day for all people to remember and recall our biology, our ancestry, the history of our planet and the processes of life which abound everywhere.

You see, even if he induced natural selection from four obvious observable facts (summary: inheritable variation, overproduction of offspring and selective deaths) of nature (which he figured out in part by studying Malthus more than his grandfather, Lamarck*, Lyell, or anyone else), HE FREAKIN INDUCED NATURAL SELECTION. Okay? And not only did he induce it he had the REAMS OF EVIDENCE to back it up. He spends one chapter in On the Origin actually laying out Natural Selection and spends the rest of the book lining, nay, PILING up evidence for his claim. Wallace, on the other hand, wrote a 6 page document; what did he think he was going to achieve with so little evidence?  He had to convince the western world to turn away from 2000 years of belief in platonic forms. He made a leap of logic that is so antithetical to Aristotelian philosophy. He was the greatest mind in biology ever, and also the humblest, because unlike Carol von Linne, he didn’t want glory. He was a seeker. If we could have brought him here today and showed him the world he brought about through his amazing mind

he would back away in humility, and say “The evidence spoke for me.”

For knowing so much, understanding so much, for asking the right questions and finding the right answers, even if he leaped off of the shoulders of giants, THAT is why he deserves every ounce of credit he gets.

*For goddsakes people, quit putting down Lamarck already. He was a brilliant man, so similar to Darwin in many ways. There was so much he wrote that feels it could have come from Darwin’s own writings, and yet we are left with this cartoonish image of him because the only thing anyone ever remembers or writes about is the giraffe neck stretching.

Some Lamarck quotes:

“time and favorable conditions are the two principal means which nature has employed in giving existence to all her productions. We know that for her time has no limit, and that consequentily she always has it at her disposal.”

“Do we not therefore perceive that by the action of the laws of organization…nature has in favorable times, places and climates multiplied her first germs of animality, given place to developments of their organizations,…and increased and diversified their organs? Then…aided by much time and by a slow but constand diversity of ciercumstances, she has gradually brought about in this respect the state of things which we now observe. How grand is this consideration, and especially how remote is it from all that is generally thought on this subject!”

Fungi, our SAVIOR!

Here I was, thinking about symbiosis, and along comes this video by Paul Stamets through TED talks (tip of the hat to Cainad). If you haven’t heard of TED talks before, I pity you.

Anyway, the video is about fungi. Most people wouldn’t care about fungi (aside from the type on your table; yes, those ARE fungi sexparts), but I have a soft spot for Animalia’s closest relative, and this man is truly empassioned.

The truth is, fungi are some of the coolest and weirdest organisms around. What we think of as being a mushroom is only the fruiting body . Maybe you’ve pulled up mulch or rotting wood before and seen a white fuzz, or pulled out an old loaf of bread and found a similar fuzz. This is a mycelium, the vegetative body of a fungus, composed of a closed network of hyphae (hair like cells) in a thin sheet. The network indeed is like a body, as the pockets in between cells become holding tanks for water, food and associated bacteria.

Fungi, like humans, are omnivourous. They decompose material outside their cells. In fact, fungi do most of the decomposing on this planet. Not insects, or worms, but mushrooms, are most important to the regeneration of nutrients in the soil. Fungi also form micorhyzal associations with many species of plants, including most flowering plants. A single mycelium can be long lived and long distance. In fact, the largest organism known is a 10 square kilometer mycelium of the fungus Armillaria ostoyae from Oregon, USA.

This seems like a good time to segwey into my purpose here. I’m a biologist bringing Biological Weirdness, oddities, rants and sermons on why living things continue to astound me, and sometimes pure bio-freak craziness. I’m also here to bring news of a Biocentric Future. There is so much research into genetics, ecology, systematics and behavior these days I can barely keep up. Much of what we are learning is turning into new technologies which will make our lives better.

Take this video for example. Stamets shows excellent opportunities for new ways of pest control (ants and termites terminated by fungal spores which leak into their colonies), new medicines (a rare mushroom showing high activity against flu and pox diseases), fuels from cellulose, and possibly even terraforming other planets. These organisms are amazing, bizarre, beautiful, and useful. The world is full of amazing bizarre, beautiful and useful species.

We just have to be willing to look and wonder.

The Tricorder – fiction now close to fact

Two recent developments in biological sciences and technology have lead me to believe the Tricorder of Star Trek fame is not so distant.

The first is a hand held medical scanner/communication device. Granot, Ivorra and Rubinsky published their creation through the online PLoS ONE journal on April 30th of this year. The technology uses a very similar setup to the newer cellular phones, and detects voltage differences to produce images. From the pictures you can see it is pretty much a modified cell phone, connected to an electrode setup.

The second article was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London in 2003. Hebert et al provide a complete system to taxonomic identification through the Cytochrome Oxidase I gene of mitochondrial DNA. This gene is found in all animals, and varies quite a bit between species, however, its intraspecific variation is low. The mutation rate of the gene is just right for acting as a species barcode, whereas the DNA sequence identifies the species by its closeness to a record of known gene sequences. The aim is to sequence this gene in all animal species and use it as a universal identifier. There are several worldwide barcoding initiatives going on for most of the major taxonomic groupings. I really don’t see it as that far off before we have a good record for all described vertebrate species, although it will probably take much longer for the invertebrates. The practical uses for this is immense. Already, barcoding has been used to uncover fish market fraud.

Now, wouldn’t it be cool if you could combine the two of these? You would have a cell phone that could do biological scanning, as well as sequence COI genes and compare them to the online database. You would have a combination communicator, biological scanner, and species identification device, in essence, a tricorder.

Its not that far off. – The heart of the barcoding initiative. Note the search engine of over 160 thousand barcodes. You can simply type your sequence in and it will give you the closest matches.