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15 January 2019

Easing of selective pressure on Opuntia cacti in the Galapagos Islands

A cactus you can pet with your bare hand? Turns out it can tell you something about whether that island contains any land iguanas. A case study in the easing of natural selective pressure.

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14 January 2019

A tale of three iguanas

As noted last week, I spent the week spanning New Year’s Eve in the enchanted isles of the Galapagos. The previous week (over Christmas) my family and I were in coastal Ecuador. I saw a total of three species of iguanas in the two locations, and they offer a neat little story of evolution. Let’s take a look. First, let’s introduce the key players: The green iguana, Iguana iguana (coastal Ecuador, …

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19 September 2018

The Tangled Tree, by David Quammen

The talented science writer David Quammen has a new book out, and it’s excellent. The Tangled Tree explores endosymbiosis and horizontal gene transfer, two aspects of evolution that undercut the traditional ever-more-branching “tree of life” vision for the relatedness of living things. The lineage of organisms is not only divergent, but convergent too: populations diverge and sometimes merge, in whole or in part, complicating the traditional “ramose” structure of phylogenetic …

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13 September 2018

A New History of Life, by Peter Ward and Joe Kirschvink

Yesterday, I finished listening to the audiobook version of A New History of Life, by Peter Ward and Joe Kirschvink (2016). This book is only a couple of years old, and takes as its topic ‘the modern perspective’ on life’s long history on Earth, using the latest insights available. It aims to debunk old hypotheses that don’t stand up to new data, and to expand the purview of life’s reign …

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13 March 2018

The Evolution of Beauty, by Richard Prum

This fascinating new work by ornithologist Richard Prum re-examines sexual selection (mate choice) as a driving force of evolutionary change independent of (and sometimes in contradiction to) the mechanism of natural selection (environmental adaptation). Prum positions himself as a modern advocate for the ideas Charles Darwin expressed in The Descent of Man, and that Alfred Russel Wallace argued against in the years following Darwin’s death. In The Evolution of Beauty, …

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22 February 2017

The Magic of Reality, by Richard Dawkins

I just finished Richard Dawkins’ book for younger readers and/or a general audience, The Magic of Reality. It’s a general-interest science education book, written in Dawkins-speak – very conversational and emphatic about key points. It consists of a series of chapters about different topics, with each chapter guided by a big question, like “What is a rainbow?” or “What are things made of?” or “Who was the first person?” Dawkins …

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6 February 2017

Q&A, episode 1

A new series takes science and nature questions and answers them. Read the answers to the first two questions and submit your own!

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31 January 2017

Three kids’ books

Cosmology, evolution, and ethics for the four-year old set? It can be done! Join Callan for a brief review of three excellent books for children.

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13 December 2016

The Gene, by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Over the weekend, I finished an excellent popular summary of genetics, The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It’s an excellent, thoughtful, current tome, that covers everything from Mendel to Darwin to Lysenko to Rosalind Franklin to CRISPR, written in a personal, accessible way. He begins and ends with a trip to India, examining the genetic roots of madness in his own family. There is a constant attention to …

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1 March 2016

How to Clone a Mammoth, by Beth Shapiro

I just finished an interesting book with a provocative title. How to Clone a Mammoth, by Beth Shapiro, is a readable, sober assessment of de-extinction, the idea of bringing back extinct species through a variety of techniques. She defines very clearly at the outset that the purpose of de-extinction is ecological – to restore critical / desired organism/organism or organism/abiotic environment interactions in ecosystems. It is, in other words, a …

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