Thursday, 27 August 2009

Extracts from Richard Dawkins' new book in The Times

Celebrated science writer and Darwin-supporter Richard Dawkins has a new book, due out in September, on that favourite topic of his, evolution.

The Greatest Show on Earth presents as much evidence for evolutionary theory as he can lay his hands on. Here's a blurb from his website:
Richard Dawkins takes on creationists, including followers of 'Intelligent Design' and all those who question the fact of evolution through natural selection.

Like a detective arriving on the scene of a crime, he sifts through fascinating layers of scientific facts and disciplines to build a cast-iron case: from the living examples of natural selection in birds and insects; the 'time clocks' of trees and radioactive dating that calibrate a timescale for evolution; the fossil record and the traces of our earliest ancestors; to confirmation from molecular biology and genetics.

All of this, and much more, bears witness to the truth of evolution. "The Greatest Show on Earth" comes at a critical time: systematic opposition to the fact of evolution is now flourishing as never before, especially in America. In Britain and elsewhere in the world, teachers witness insidious attempts to undermine the status of science in their classrooms. Richard Dawkins provides unequivocal evidence that boldly and comprehensively rebuts such nonsense.

Anyway, my main reason for posting is that The Times newspaper is serialising extracts from the book every day this week. Here are links to extracts from the first and second chapters. You can also find links to these on Check either that or the Times website for further extracts throughout the week.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

"Darwin was wrong": Darwin in the headlines

“Charles Darwin was wrong,” proclaimed a handful of news stories last week.

It all stemmed from a rather misleading sentence in this press release from Duke University about a paper looking at the evolution of the appendix. According to the release, Darwin was wrong because he 'claimed' that the appendix was a useless organ.

I came across this via a blog post by PZ Myers over on the Pharyngula blog. Myers rightly points out the flaws of the press release (not least that Darwin didn't actually say the appendix was useless, and only mentioned it in passing once in any of his works). In a separate post he does an excellent analysis of the paper itself, which, as he points out is actually quite interesting.

But back to that press release.

“Writing in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, Duke scientists and collaborators from the University of Arizona and Arizona State University conclude that Charles Darwin was wrong: The appendix is a whole lot more than an evolutionary remnant. Not only does it appear in nature much more frequently than previously acknowledged, but it has been around much longer than anyone had suspected.”

I can imagine this was enough to get creationists excited. Unfortunately, it’s not really what the scientists are saying. Read a bit further along and you’ll find Dr William Parker, one of the scientists on the study, quoted as saying:

"Darwin simply didn't have access to the information we have… If Darwin had been aware of the species that have an appendix attached to a large cecum, and if he had known about the widespread nature of the appendix, he probably would not have thought of the appendix as a vestige of evolution."

Dr Parker also points out that some of the recent conclusions about the appendix follow cultural changes that took place long after Darwin wrote his books.

"We didn't really have a good understanding of that principle until the mid 1980's," Parker said. "Even more importantly, Darwin had no way of knowing that the function of the appendix could be rendered obsolete by cultural changes that included widespread use of sewer systems and clean drinking water."

All in all, as PZ Myers says, it’s an awful press release from the Duke University media office, with the sensationalist statement up top totally contradicting with what is in the rest of the text.

It reminded me of a New Scientist cover earlier this year, which proclaimed that Darwin’s Tree of Life was wrong (what the actual article said was that it was more of a ‘bush’ or ‘thicket’ than a well-pruned tree). That similarly grabbed a few headlines and prompted some angry outcries from scientists (read, again, PZ Myers, pointing out Roger Highfield’s editorial that seems to be at odds with his cover headline).

The whole ‘misleading headlines and sensationalist media’ debate is of course much larger than just Charles Darwin. In Darwin200 year, and with science vs religion still a majorly controversial topic in the United States and increasingly elsewhere as well, it’s all too easy to sell papers off the back of “Darwin was wrong” headlines. I guess it was inevitable that such headlines would appear, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing.

Incidentally, if you want to see the appendix paper covered right, have a look at Steve Mirsky's bit for the Scientific American podcast.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

New content added to the Tree of Life website

The Tree of Life blog has a new home! It is now integrated within the new look Tree of Life website.

In fact, the whole Tree of Life website is growing, with exciting new resources to help you get more out of the video animation and the accompanying interactive.

- The updated interactive now incorporates more living things and , now includes many plants, such the orchid, fly agaric and oak tree.

- For teachers and students, we have commissioned a series of curriculum matched lesson plans and worksheets for three key age groups: 11-14, 14-16 and 16-19.

- For scientists interested in evolution and phylogeny, there are links to the latest research on the topics.

- If you're interested in creating your own tree by editing the XML files, find out more by visiting the scientific resources section of the site.

- In addition to the XML files, we’ve made all the files from which the tree is built – including image, video and files – freely and easily available to edit and use under the terms of our Creative Commons licence.

And of course, the Tree of Life blog will continue to keep you up-to-date with the latest news and comment on Darwin and evolution.

You can access all this and more at the Tree of Life website.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Darwin the musical at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

If you're lucky enough to be attending the Edinburgh Festival this month, you may wish to check out this Fringe offering: 'The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection or the Survival of (R)evolutionary Theories in the Face of Scientific and Ecclesiastical Objections: Being a Musical Comedy About Charles Darwin (1809-1882)'.

As well as having an incredibly long title, this production from the Tangram Theatre Company is notable for being one of the only musicals about Charles Darwin and On the Origin of Species.

I'm told that it contains possibly the only musical song about barnacles, as well as some history of science and a condensed voyage of the Beagle.

The show lasts 58 minutes and is on at the Pleasance Courtyard. Times and tickets available from the Fringe website, as well as some audience reviews.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Tree of Life wins video award

The Tree of Life has won an award!

The Wellcome Trust-funded animation for the Tree of Life, as featured in the BBC documentary fo the same name, won the Judges' Choice award in the Institutional Category of The Scientist Video Awards.

Judge David Kirby said, "By far this was the best video of all the submissions. The visuals were beautiful, the narrator served as a storyteller not as a lecturer, and the music complimented the piece."

Judge Kristen Sanford said, "Beautiful graphics! Well-written script conveyed info in a clear, concise, engaging manner."

Many thanks to judges and The Scientist for the award and congratulations to the Wellcome Trust Tree of Life team.

And finally, the winning video again (if you hadn't already seen it).