On a blade of grass

Parasites – as I’ve discussed before – are a fascinating case study in the lengths that nature will go to create creatures capable of extreme lifestyles.  The way that some parasites hijack their hosts and alter their form and function is equal parts amazing and repulsive.  Ants, like snails, are common victims: The spores of the [Cordyceps] fungus attach themselves to the external surface of the ant, where they germinate. They then enter the ant’s body through the tracheae (the tubes through which insects breathe), via holes in the exoskeleton called spiracles. Fine fungal filaments called mycelia then start to [... read the rest ...]

A couple of days ago I wrote about the exciting announcement out of NASA that scientists had discovered a lifeform that uses a slightly different set of building blocks than traditional critters.  Specifically, the microbes in question are alleged to use arsenic instead of phosphorus as a component when constructing their DNA. Unfortunately, according to Rosie Redfield, a microbiologist out of British Columbia, the science was sloppy and proves nothing.  Writing on her personal blog, Redfield dissected the Science paper, explaining what the authors did and why it was both inconclusive and misleading. Some excerpts: In Fig. 1 (below), the [... read the rest ...]

With the holiday season in full swing, gaming news and notable releases seem to have dried right up.  The most interesting (and depressing) thing that I’ve seen all week is a slew of bad reviews for the much-anticipated Epic Mickey.  I’d still like to play the game, but my enthusiasm for the title has been severely tempered by all of the criticism. In lieu of something on topic (if such a thing exists for this blog), I present you with a random smattering of recent headlines: Top ten questions in science The Guardian solicited a myriad of scientists across a [... read the rest ...]

One of the most intriguing things about the state of human knowledge is that for all we know about our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, and even the entire universe we haven’t the foggiest idea how it is that we came to be self aware.  The origins of human consciousness are shrouded in mystery, and the best that we can do is speculation. In the December issue of Discover magazine, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio posits twelve steps that may have led to consciousness in living organisms.  Of the twelve, I find the second the most fascinating and poetic: 2. The [... read the rest ...]

I posed this question to readers of my old blog back on January 16, 2006 and I’m still not sure that I have an answer that I’m comfortable with: With the rise of medicine, humans with otherwise debilitating or fatal health problems have been able not only to survive, but to propagate their genetic weakness throughout the species.  Will the human capacity for innovation, as embodied by medicine, actually end up being a sort of genetic Achilles’ heel?  If we are not able to purge weakness using the gene pool, as we have for millennia, are we on a course [... read the rest ...]

Stranger than fiction

The SETI Institute – an organization devoted to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence – has always been something of an enigma to me.  One one hand, they seek to answer one of the fundamental questions of human existence, Are We Alone?, but on the other their methods seem far too anthropomorphic and to narrowly focused on technology that was developed in an interstellar eye blink. As pointed out on the Discover blog, SETI astronomer Seth Shostak recently mused in Acta Astronautic that the organization should refocus its efforts and start searching for signs of artificial intelligence instead of the sloppy [... read the rest ...]

Are we getting stupider?

The September issue of Discover magazine contains an article (online version not yet available) about a puzzling bit of human evolution:  the human brain has been shrinking at what some scientists consider an alarming rate, and no one understands why or what the ramifications might be. Over the past 20,000 years, the average volume of the human male brain has decreased from 1,500 cubic centimeters to 1,350 cc, losing a chunk the size of a tennis ball.  The female brain has shrunk by about the same proportion.  “I’d call that a major downsizing in an evolutionary eyeblink,” [anthropologist John Hawks] [... read the rest ...]

In lieu of a meaningful post today I have a collection of smaller links.  This week has been busy so far and will only get busier between now and Saturday, so I wouldn’t expect much in the way of deep thinking from me until at least Sunday.  Thankfully it’s not a bad sort of busy: I played Ultimate Frisbee last night, and have games tonight and tomorrow which lead into an all day charity beach tournament on Saturday (there’s nothing more fun than laying out on sand). I’d also like to point out that I end up highlighting a lot [... read the rest ...]

Cultaptation, a research group devoted to the study of “dynamics and adaptation in human cumulative culture”, recently ran a contest that pitted one hundred and four teams against each other in a competition to devise a strategy for social learning in a simulated environment.  Put another way, entrants had to create a set of rules that governed how artificial life forms would gain knowledge about how to interact with a world in order to best compete for resources. The prize, €10,000, went to Timothy Lillicrap and Daniel Cownden of Queen’s University here in Canada, whose “discountmachine” strategy won by a [... read the rest ...]

Hardwired Morality?

Originally posted: March 4, 2004. 9:36pm This month’s issue of Discover Magazine (April 2004, vol25, no4) contains an article discussing the possibility that a person’s sense of “right” and “wrong” may not be learned behavior, but may instead be encoded into our very beings. The article is titled Whose Life Would You Save? and can be found on page 60. The study of ethics has always been a topic that I’ve enjoyed, and evolutionary ethics is my preferred theory, which is why I immediately latched on to the Discover article. Roughly speaking, evolutionary ethics is the belief that actions which [... read the rest ...]

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