It casts the search for the explanations behind natural phenomena as a progression from supernatural stories to natural reasoning, throwing biblical stories in the same bin with outdated tales of Egyptian sky gods and Norse deities. (Would you expect anything less from Dawkins?)
Dawkins argues that the scientific explanations for the origins of our planet or the reasons for a rainbow can hold as much wonder as any poetic passage from Genesis. "The truth is more magical — in the best and most exciting sense of the word — than any myth or made-up mystery or miracle," he writes. "Science has its own magic: the magic of reality."
Perhaps most intriguingly, "The Magic of Reality" takes advantage of the magic of technology in a tablet version created for Apple's iPad. The 678-megabyte iPad edition costs less than the 272-page book ($13.99 vs. a list price of $29.99, which is being widely discounted). But in addition to providing the full text, the e-book literally puts Dave McKean's scores of illustrations into motion. It also offers more than a dozen games, interactive graphics, videos and audio clips to click on.
My favorite clickables include a chamber that lets you turn up the heat and the pressure on a solid/liquid/gas to see Boyle's law at work (you can even slosh the liquid around by shaking the iPad) ... a graphic that lets you use virtual prisms, lenses and slits to play with on-screen rainbows (and illustrate how a spectrograph works) ... a game that lets you breed frogs for optimal leg length (too bad you have to kill off six frogs in every generation) ... and a series of virtual photographs that trace evolution backwards into the mists of time (which plays off a concept Dawkins used in an earlier book about evolution, "The Ancestor's Tale").
Each chapter of the book focuses on an age-old question, ranging from "What is the sun?" and "What is an earthquake?" to "Why do bad things happen?" and "What is a miracle?" Sometimes, Dawkins ends up shrugging his shoulders. For example, after noting that time and space itself are thought to have begun with the big bang 13.7 billion years ago, he adds: "Don't ask me to explain that, because, not being a cosmologist, I don't understand it myself."
And don't ask Dawkins to accept any supernatural explanation for natural phenomena, unless you want a tongue-lashing: "If you claim that anything odd must be 'supernatural' you are not just saying you don't currently understand it; you are giving up and saying that it can be never understood," he writes.
Biologist Richard Dawkins talks about "The Magic of Reality" on BBC "Newsnight."
Is "The Magic of Reality" the consummate children's book about science? I'm hesitant to go that far, partly because Dawkins is so militant about going after Judeo-Christian beliefs. "As it happens, we know that lots of fiction has been made up about this particular preacher called Jesus," he writes. Religious families might feel threatened by Dawkins' preachiness, while non-religious families might wonder what all the fuss is about. I wonder whether "The Magic of Reality" would pass muster as a public-school science textbook, in light of Supreme Court rulings that say the government should not be actively involved in opposing religion.
Beyond those qualms, there are lots of intriguing scientific topics that Dawkins just had to pass up, ranging from the workings of the brain to the nature of dark energy and dark matter. Think of "Magic" as a jumping-off point for a young adult's scientific inquiry, rather than an all-encompassing reference work.
To Dawkins' credit, he acknowledges that there are still wide gaps in our understanding of the cosmos:
"There is much that remains deeply mysterious, and it is not likely that we will ever uncover all the secrets of a universe as vast as ours; but, armed with science, we can at least ask sensible, meaningful questions about it and recognize credible answers when we find them. We don't have to invent wildly implausible stories; we have the joy and excitement of real scientific investigation and discovery to keep our imaginations in line. And in the end that is more exciting than fantasy."
I might quibble with Dawkins' perspective on the roles that imagination and spirituality play in making sense out of reality, but his central point is that we shouldn't let our beliefs hold back the search for truth. And to that, I say amen.
How did pre-humans like australopiths, shown at left in this illustration, make the transition to early members of the genus Homo, shown at right? Perhaps it happened more than once.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
The discoverer of the famous "Lucy" fossil says fresh findings suggest that more than one ancient species made the transition to more humanlike forms in different parts of Africa.
Arizona State University paleoanthropologist Don Johanson shook up the scientific world in 1974 when he came across the traces of a 3.2 million-year-old skeleton in Ethiopia, a pre-human ancestor that came to be called Lucy. A similar shake-up may well be in the works due to the detailed analysis of another set of 1.977 million-year-old bones found in South Africa.
In a series of studies published this week in the journal Science, researchers make a strong case that the bones, ascribed to a species called Australopithecus sediba, illustrate how the bodies of humanlike primates became more suited for upright walking, tool-making — and bigger brains.
The international research team, led by the University of Witwatersrand's Lee Berger, says A. sediba is a good representative of the type of creature leading to the emergence of the genus Homo, which includes us Homo sapiens types as well as Neanderthals and a host of other now-extinct species.
Courtesy of Donald Johanson
Anthropologist Don Johanson holds a cast of the skull of Lucy, one of the world's best-known hominid fossils.
But Johanson told me today that few of the reports about the latest findings touch on "the real crux of the matter." Even though A. sediba is a transitional form, with features of Australopithecus as well as Homo, he said there are other specimens of the genus Homo in eastern Africa that have been dated to roughly the same time. "There is a diversity of Homo already at 1.8 million years," he said.
In fact, at least one of the fossil bones traditionally ascribed to Homo — an upper jaw from the same area of Ethiopia where Lucy was found — has been dated to an age of 2.3 million years, Johanson said. He sees that as a sign that some primates in east Africa had completed the transition to Homo while others in southern Africa were still in the midst of that transition.
"Right after 3 million years toward the present, we see that there is a response in eastern and southern Africa which are on two different evolutionary trajectories," Johanson said. One trajectory led to grass-eaters such as Paranthropus robustus and Paranthropus boisei, and the other trajectory led to bigger-brained species such as Homo ergaster, Homo rudolfensis and Homo habilis. He said Homo habilis appears to have existed in east Africa at the same time that australopiths in southern Africa were becoming more Homo-like.
Courtesy of Lee Berger
Anthropologist Lee Berger holds the cranium of Australopithecus sediba.
"For the very first time, we've found the roots of Homo in south Africa, but it's too late to be the roots of Homo in east Africa," Johanson said.
During a teleconference, Berger said it can be difficult to tease out the relationships between the various species along the evolutionary path leading to modern humans.
"We're dealing with a period between, say, 2.3 million years and 1.6 milion years where the entire remainder of the fossil record could fit into a small shoebox, as opposed to these very well-preserved skeletons," Berger said. But he insisted that A. sediba "may very well be as good a model or better than the Homo habilis one, which actually only has a larger brain to go with it." He pointed out that our knowledge about Homo habilis was based on "very fragmentary fossils."
Darryl de Ruiter, an anthropologist at Texas A&M University who is part of Berger's team, said researchers considered whether A. sediba represented nothing more than an evolutionary dead end. "But as we pointed out, and as all these papers are demonstrating, in every aspect of the skeleton — cranium, teeth, jaw, mandibles, hand, pelvis, foot, everything that we look at — we see characteristics that align this species more closely with Homo than any other australopith," he said.
When the discovery of the A. sediba fossils was announced last year, Johanson speculated that the species might be more appropriately considered a part of the genus Homo than the genus Australopithecus. "I've actually changed my view," Johanson said. Now he agrees with Berger's team that it's an australopith. And who knows? Anthropologists may well change their minds many times as more fossils come to light.
In any case, Johanson said, this week's revelations are "very, very interesting."
"It does show that there are probably different ways of being an upright walker, and there are different ways of arranging the anatomy," he said. "There isn't just one strict way."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry stirred up a fresh scientific spat today with his claim that scientists were manipulating their data about climate change "so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects" — a view that serves to highlight the differences among the GOP presidential candidates on science-related issues.
During a town hall meeting in Bedford, N.H., here's what Perry, one of the front-runners for the Republican nomination, had to say about the state of climate science:
"I do believe that the issue of global warming has been politicized. I think there are a substantial number or scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects. I think we're seeing, almost weekly or daily, scientists are coming forward and questioning the original idea that manmade global warming is what is causing the climate to change. Yes, our climate has changed. They've been changing ever since the earth was formed. But I do not buy into a group of scientists who have in some cases [been] found to be manipulating this information. ..."
The comments are pretty much in line with what Perry has said in the past. He's playing off the suspicions raised by the "Climategate" e-mail controversy that broke in 2009. That flap revealed that the most outspoken climate researchers are all too human when it comes to talking about their intellectual adversaries in private — but in the end, they were mostly cleared of scientific malfeasance (although one published graph was judged to be "misleading").
The criticisms of Perry's view follow well-worn tracks as well: On the left-leaning Think Progress blog, Texas A&M climate researcher Andrew Dessler is quoted as saying that none of the credible atmospheric scientists in Texas agree with the governor. "This is a particularly unfortunate situation, given the hellish drought that Texas is now experiencing, and which climate change is almost certainly making worse," he said.
Think Progress goes so far as to list more than three dozen scientists who disagree with Perry.
Brian Snyder / Reuters
Texas Gov. Rick Perry extends his arm toward a lab worker during a tour of Resonetics Laser Micromaching in Nashua, N.H., on Wednesday. Resonetics CEO Chris Banas is to the left of Perry, and Cliff Gabay, the company's president, looks on from the right.
The Texas governor's views come in contrast with those of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, an early front-runner in the GOP presidential field. Romney has said "I believe, based on what I read, that the world is getting warmer" and added that "I believe that humans contribute to that."
As a result, he said at a New Hampshire town hall meeting in June, "it's important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases that may be significant contributors." However, he said any measures to stem greenhouse gases should be applied on an international basis. He opposed putting a carbon cap-and-trade system into place because it would put America at a competitive disadvantage.
The Perry vs. Romney climate split may be the latest and buzziest difference to emerge in the race for the GOP nomination, but when you look closely at the candidates, you'll see other differences as well. Here's a rundown on four of the leading candidates, related to four hot-button scientific topics: climate policy, evolution education, stem-cell research and science funding:
We've already summarized Perry's and Romney's views.
U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota opposes climate change legislation, saying that carbon dioxide is a "harmless gas." During a town hall meeting in South Carolina this week, she said that all the issues surrounding climate change would have to be "settled on the basis of real science, not manufactured science."
U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas has called the concern about Earth's changing climate "the greatest hoax I think that has been around for many, many years, if not hundreds of years," based on the Climategate reports (see above). He's opposed to energy subsidies as well as government efforts to control greenhouse-gas emissions. "Pollution can be better taken care of under a private market system, under private property," he said.
(President Barack Obama, by the way, favors policies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, but the current "climate" in Congress has severely limited any progress on environmental initiatives.)
Perry says he is a "firm believer in intelligent design as a matter of faith and intellect, and I believe it should be presented in schools alongside the theories of evolution." Intelligent design is the view that the complexity seen in nature is best explained as resulting from the efforts of an intelligent designer — for example, God, or an alien civilization. But in Perry's case, certainly God.
Romney said during his presidential campaign that he believes "God designed the universe" and that he believes God "used the process of evolution to create the human body." As Massachusetts governor, he opposed the teaching of intelligent design in public-school science classes. "The science class is where to teach evolution, or if there are any other scientific thoughts that need to be discussed," he told The New York Times. "If we're going to talk about more philosophical matters, like why it was created, and was there an intelligent designer behind it, that's for the religion class or philosophy class or social studies class."
Bachmann says "evolution has never been proven" and believes that intelligent design should be taught alongside the evolutionary view of biological change. "What I support is putting all science on the table and then letting students decide," Bachmann told reporters at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans in June.
Paul says "nobody has concrete proof" for evolutionary theory, although he acknowledges that "it's a pretty logical theory." In his view, the intelligent-design concept has more to do with personal beliefs rather than science. "In a libertarian society these beliefs aren't nearly as critical. When you have government schools, it becomes important," he said. "'Are you fair in teaching that the earth could have been created by a creator or it came out of a pop, out of nowhere?' In a personal world, we don't have government dictating and ruling all these things; it's not very important."
(Obama favors the current legal view that teaching the intelligent-design concept in public-school science classes would be unconstitutional.)
Perry is opposed to human embryonic stem-cell research, which involves destroying human embryos to harvest the therapeutic cells. But he's a strong supporter of less controversial adult stem-cell research. In fact, he was a beneficiary of such research when he received an infusion of his own lab-grown stem cells to speed recovery from a back injury.
Bachmann is opposed to federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, but favors less controversial initiatives that use adult stem cells or reprogrammed cells (also known as induced pluripotent stem cells or iPS cells).
Paul says the federal government should have no jurisdiction over the conduct of embryonic stem-cell research. He has, however, sponsored legislation that would use tax credits to encourage less controversial stem-cell studies, as well as the establishment of stem-cell and cord-blood banks.
(Obama has favored expanded federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research — an issue that has been tied up in lengthy legal proceedings. Most researchers hope that reprogrammed cells will eventually provide a way out of the moral and ethical controversy.)
Federal funding for the National Science Foundation has become something of a hot potato in some GOP quarters, in light of recent criticism of the agency from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
Bachmann has faced criticism from the right-leaning Club for Growth for her "questionable" vote to reauthorize spending by the NSF. However, Bachmann did recently seek to reduce NSF funding to 2008 levels for a budget reduction of $1.7 billion.
I realize I'm missing many other worthy GOP candidates, and many other worthy issues relating to science and technology. Feel free to add your comments about the candidates and the issues, but please keep the conversation civil. This isn't the place to talk about the debt crisis, or chew over the immigration issue, or handicap the horse race. That's what the First Read blog is for. Check in with First Read and msnbc.com's Politics section for daily coverage of the 2012 presidential campaign.
Update for 10:30 p.m. ET Aug. 18: Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, another GOP presidential hopeful, stirred the pot by sending along this Twitter tweet: "To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy." This follows up on The Washington Post's quote from Huntsman's chief strategist, John Weaver: "We're not going to win a national election if we become the anti-science party."
Although Huntsman accepts the view that greenhouse-gas emissions are contributing to climate change, he told Time's Swampland blog in May that cap-and-trade systems haven't worked and that "putting additional burdens on the pillars of growth right now is counterproductive."
On the stem-cell issue, a spokesman for Huntsman told LifeNews.com that the Republican supports research that involves "adult stem cells, non-embryonic stem cells and certain types of embryonic stem cell[s]" but does not support federal funding for research on new lines of embryonic stem cells. Such a stand appears to be consistent with the policy that was in place during George W. Bush's tenure at the White House.
This 35,000-year-old bird-bone flute, held by the University of Tübingen's Nicholas Conard, is considered one of the world's oldest handcrafted musical instruments. But researchers say human musicmaking has much more ancient roots.
By Nidhi Subbaraman
If you think about, there's no escape, really. Music holds humanity in a vise grip. Every culture you can think of has it, hears it and taps their feet to it. So how did music first take hold? A new analysis proposes that music hijacked our ancestors' ability to hear and interpret the movements of fellow human beings.
That claim is at the heart of “Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man,” a new book by neurobiologist Mark Changizi. Changizi analyzed the rises and falls in the rhythm and intonation of more than 10,000 samples of folk music from Finland and found that they bear a stamp — an auditory fossil of sorts — that can be traced back to the rises and falls and rhythms associated with the movement of people.
It’s the latest in a series of theories that have drawn upon evolutionary biology, developmental biology, psychology and neuroscience to explain how human beings came to cultivate music as a complex, expressive craft. Music has persisted in society, but it doesn't seem to come with any obvious survival benefit. If it wasn't essential to survival, why did it stick around?
"Harnessed," a new book by neurobiologist Mark Changizi, focuses on the origins of music - and how music helped shape humanity.
“Music really is the story about a person moving or doing something around you,” Changizi told me. “It’s just like listening to a story. We’re having an auditory story about people moving our midst.”
The appreciation for music grew and developed from this primal urge, monopolizing a natural faculty meant for human survival. Music essentially “harnessed” this urge, Changizi says, which also explains the title of the book.
“A lot of thinking is remote from the physical act of making music,” William Benson, a jazz musician and author of the book "Beethoven’s Anvil," told me. “And [Changizi] gets right to the physical aspect of making music.”
For one thing, it explains music's emotional appeal. In his book, Changizi described a study that looked at the foot patterns of people in different emotional states. When they were happy, sad or angry, their gaits betrayed their feelings.
“Music may not be marching orders from our commander, but it can sometimes cue our emotional system so precisely that we feel almost compelled to march in lockstep with music’s fictional mover,” Changizi writes. “And this is true whether we are adults or toddlers. When music is effective at getting us to mimic the movement it mimics, we call it dance music, be it a Strauss waltz or a Grateful Dead flail.”
The relationship between movement and music may come as a surprise for some, but not so much for others. In some African cultures, the word for "music" and "dance" are one and the same. In contrast, concert pianists or cellists sit still when they perform.
Why this difference? Blame the Gregorian chant, says Benson. Monasteries were the intellectual centers of Europe in the Middle Ages. Monks chanted tonal, arrhythmic verses daily, developed the Western musical notation, and set the pattern for the understanding and performance of Western music during the centuries that followed. “And if you think of that as the basis for music, then you’re not going to get the kind of music you get in Africa and India,” Benson told me.
Essentially, the Gregorian chant decoupled the ideas of movement and rhythm from music in the Western world. But Changizi's theory brings the ideas together once again, backed by a statistical approach that looks more deeply into the correlation between dance and movement and music.
Take a deeper look into the brain, and you may have an even more convincing case for music being an intrinsic characteristic of the human experience, says Edward Large, who studies how the brain processes sound and rhythm. While Changizi's musical analysis sounds reasonable, there may be an even deeper universality. "The paydirt is where you find the same patters in the brain that you find in the music," he told me.
So, the human brain was harnessed. A faculty that came into being for survival — recognizing the behavioral patterns in the movements of others — was tweaked, and music hitched a ride into the lives of modern humans.
We see such behavior all the time, Changizi explains. Just look at cats: “Although tuna is not what cat ancestors ate, tuna is sufficiently meat-ish in odor and taste that it fits right into a cat’s finicky diet disposition.” And music, it seems, is tuna for our finicky brains.
Motion-capture artist Andy Serkis talks about the premise of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
Experts say the premise behind "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," the latest movie about intelligent chimps gone wild, is almost laughable. But they're not laughing about the wider issues raised by the cross-species romp — ranging from the genetic humanization of other animals, to the way we treat our fellow apes, to the long-running debate over the definition of "humanness."
Let's start by acknowledging that there's no way just administering a drug or fiddling with a few genes can confer human-type intelligence or language ability on chimpanzees or other non-human primates. "The scientific notion is preposterous," Jon Cohen, author of the book "Almost Chimpanzee," told me today.
Cohen said the oft-cited claim that there's a 1 percent difference between the human and chimp genetic code has led people to believe mistakenly that the two species are separated only by a few molecular tweaks here and there. When the differences in non-coding DNA are taken into account, that difference rises to 4 or 5 percent. Chimps and humans don't even have the same number of chromosomes (48 for chimps vs. 46 for humans).
"We have to get away from this vastly oversold notion that we're the same," Cohen said. "Let's grow up, and let's stop that."
The differences range from physiological factors (chimps don't suffer from the kinds of heart disease and cancer that afflict humans), to behaviors (humans can swim, chimps generally can't), to cognitive abilities. For years, primatologists have debated whether chimps can use language, or teach concepts to each other, or do math, or identify with the plight of someone else — but there's no debate that humans put chimps to shame in those departments.
Cohen thinks there are several factors behind our desire to think that chimps are like us:
Save the chimps: Conservationists may emphasize the similarities as a strategy to build up support for preserving wild chimpanzees in Africa, where they are an endangered species. "It works, because the public cares about chimps more than any other species," Cohen said. "But come on — we care about whales and elephants, and they don't look like us."
Support for evolution: A long time ago, some Darwinists pointed to the similarities as evidence of evolution at work. But that argument may be counterproductive now, since it's clear that humans and chimps had common ancestors that didn't look or act like either species. Current evolutionary theory rests on a wide array of evidence, and not just on the human-chimp connection. "We don't need that argument any longer," Cohen said.
We are not alone: "We're fascinated by the notion that we can communicate with species on other planets, that the universe isn't as lonely as it appears to be," Cohen observed. "If we could somehow have a chimp that was more like us, it would satisfy this deep science-fiction desire for communication with others, and make us feel less lonely. But it's a fantasy."
So unless you have 5 million years to spare, don't expect to take over the world by breeding an army of intelligent chimps. An army of intelligent robots is a more likely option. However, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" does provide an opportunity for some serious reflection of the wholly human variety. Among the issues to reflect upon are these:
Humanized species: It's becoming more common to transplant our genes into other species — for instance, the mice who were given a "humanized" version of the gene linked to language and speech. Humanized mice are even being created in college science projects. The trend has rung alarm bells at the British Academy of Medical Sciences, which is calling for a ban on experiments that might give human characteristics to other primates. (Note the "Planet of the Apes" angle in this video.) Last year, U.S. bioethicists made a similar call for regulation, saying that it would be "ethically unacceptable" to conduct humanization research with apes. (Here's a scary sentence: "Imagine the life of the transgenic chimpanzee that, while no more self-aware than other chimps, is hairless, walks erect, lacks long canine teeth, or vocalizes like a human.")
'Species-ism' at work: Even if chimpanzees are not as humanlike as some people may think, should they and other great apes be given special treatment? European regulators think so: They have ruled out most biomedical research on apes, while allowing experimentation on monkeys, our more distant relatives on the primate family tree. A similar debate over invasive chimpanzee research is simmering in the United States. Cohen says "species-ism" is a natural human tendency. We value mice over mosquitoes, monkeys over mice, and men over monkeys. "We do feel closer to some species than others, and we feel closest to the great apes because we're in the same family," he said. "But that doesn't mean tha we're them and they're us."
Defining humanness: Some may question whether chimps should qualify as "persons" under the law, but no one would confuse a chimp with a human. In fact, Cohen argues that one of the main reasons to study chimpanzees is to track down the roots of the differences between our species and our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. "It clarifies what a human is, and what it means," he said.
One of the closing lines of Cohen's book resonates particularly strongly as "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" goes into its big opening weekend: "Humans will determine the fate of chimpanzees. Chimpanzees of course will have no say in the fate of humans. And that may be the single most conspicuous difference between the two species."
Do you agree? Feel free to weigh in with your comment below. And, oh, by the way: Let me know how you liked the movie.
Extra credit: If you're looking for a blockbuster movie that's on firmer (but equally scary) scientific ground, Cohen suggests keeping an eye out for "Contagion," a meticulously researched action-thriller that's due to debut next month. Looks like it has a dynamite cast — Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, to name a few — but the trailer is making me feel a little skittish about putting my fingers on the computer keyboard.
This specimen, known as SK 48, is one of the best examples of Paranthropus robustus from South Africa's Swartkrans Cave.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
An analysis of fossil teeth from South Africa suggests that the males in pre-human societies stayed near the caves where they grew up, while the females migrated when it was time to mate.
The researchers behind the analysis say their findings, published in this week's issue of the journal Nature, could shed light on the migratory behaviors that eventually gave rise to human societies.
"This appears to be most similar to a chimpanzee social structure," said lead author Sandi Copeland, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado and Germany's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. It's also consistent with the way many humans handle the process of moving out and settling down, she told journalists. "It's more often than not in modern societies that the woman is the one that leaves," she noted.
But it's not the norm in the animal world. "In most primates and most mammals, it's usually the males who leave their home community," she said. Thus, the analysis could hint at one of the factors that made us human.
Darryl de Ruiter
The skull of "Mrs. Ples" is the most famous example of Australopithecus africanus from South Africa's Sterkfontein Cave.
The research is the result of a "continuing effort that we have been making over the last five to 10 years," focusing on an area of South Africa that's rich with caves and pre-human fossils, said Oxford University archaeologist Julia Lee-Thorp, another one of the study's co-authors. She and her colleagues have been measuring the radioisotope distribution around the Sterkfontein and Swartkans cave sites, to come up with the chemical fingerprints for samples in that area.
The point behind this exercise is to chart out the migration patterns for species that can no longer tell their own tales. By sampling the isotopes of strontium in tooth enamel, the team could determine which teeth belonged to animals that grew up in the cave region and absorbed strontium in the characteristic isotopic proportions from the foods they ate. That chemical signature remained intact in the tooth enamel throughout adulthood, even if the animals later roamed to a different area.
Faint marks, left behind by a laser ablation procedure, can be seen along the right side of this Australopithecus africanus molar.
The researchers carefully blasted 19 pre-human teeth with pinpoint laser beams, and then analyzed the results. Eight of the teeth came from the Sterkfontein Cave and were traced to a species known as Australopithecus africanus, dating back about 2.2 million years. The other 11 teeth came from the Swartkans Cave, and are attributed to Parathropus robustus, a species that lived about 1.8 million years ago. Australopithecus is thought to be a closer ancestor of modern humans than Paranthropus.
The team expected to see a difference in the local vs. non-local distribution of the two species. They didn't.
"As the numbers rolled off the mass spectrometer after each laser ablation, we were at first disappointed," Lee-Thorp said in an Oxford news release. "But we soon realized that we had found another prize — a difference between the males and females. It was totally unexpected."
The researchers assumed that nine significantly larger teeth in their sample came from males, while the 10 significantly smaller teeth came from females. They chose these teeth for comparison precisely because of the size difference.
Based on the strontium analysis, more than half of the female-sized teeth came from outside the cave region, while 90 percent of the male-sized teeth were traced to the caves. That finding led the researchers to conclude that the males were stay-at-home types, while the females were more likely to roam.
Such a pattern is similar to that seen in chimpanzee societies, where males in a particular locale tend to stick together to defend their turf from interlopers. In order to guard against inbreeding, the younger females are likelier than the males to migrate for mating. Copeland said the situation is different for gorillas. In those societies, the dominant male gorilla rules over a harem that tends to stay put, while younger males usually have to go someplace else to find their own mates.
"This study gets us closer to understanding the social structure of ancient hominds, since we now have a better idea about the dispersal patterns," Copeland said in a University of Colorado news release.
The team's conclusions are based on less than two dozen teeth, divided up into species and sex categories. That raised questions about the small sample size. Texas A&M anthropologist Darryl de Ruiter, a study co-author, acknowledged that the team was "very constrained by the amount of material that we have available for destructive analysis." But he said that adding a few more teeth to the sample size may not have helped, because they had already selected the largest and the smallest teeth available to them.
"Anything else we would have added would have been in the gray area," he told journalists. "It wouldn't have added any value to the discrimination between males and females."
Member Ken Mercer, from San Antonio, reads amendments during a meeting of the State Board of Education Thursday, March 26, 2009, in Austin, Texas.
By John Roach, Contributing Writer, NBC News
Everything is bigger in Texas, the saying goes, which is why advocates for science education are concerned about proposed supplemental, web-based instructional materials for biology courses that appear to promote creationist arguments.
"This gets a foot in the door," Joshua Rosenau, the programs and policy director of the National Center for Science Education, told me today. "In general, Texas is a concern with textbook issues because they buy so many textbooks. A publisher who was planning on being able to sell in Texas and then can't is in real trouble."
That means textbook publishers target the Texas market. Cash-strapped school boards across the country looking to replace their materials, in turn, are likely to be stuck buying whatever was created for the Texans.
Critics of the plan argued that it would allow non-scientific ideas such as creationism and intelligent design to slip into Texas classrooms even though the board president at the time, Don McLeroy, had previously said, "Anything taught in science has to have consensus in the science community and intelligent design does not."
Now, proposed science education materials — all web based — are available for review on the board's website. The National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Network, organizations that criticized the new plan, reviewed the materials and found their fears confirmed.
Intelligent design teachings The review shows that materials from an obscure New Mexico-based company called International Databases LLC promote anti-evolution arguments made by proponents of intelligent design and creationism. These are the same arguments that many scientists have shown lack scientific merit.
Among the highlights from the review made available by NCSE and TFN include:
A slide on the origin of life states that "since such materialistic, self organization scenarios now have a history of scientific insufficiency for explaining the Origin of Life on Earth, the Null hypothesis (default) stands. This allows for the testing of the legitimate scientific hypothesis … Life on Earth is the result of intelligent causes."
A teacher resources slide that says that "at the end of the instructional unit on the Origin of Life, students should go home with the understanding that a new paradigm of explaining life's origins is emerging from the failed attempts of naturalistic scenarios. The new way of thinking is predicated upon the hypothesis that intelligent input is necessary for life's origins."
A module on the scientific method that lays out two "unproven hypothesis" that scientists have used to build their theories on the origin of life. One is called "scientific materialism, naturalism, and so forth." The other is that "an intelligence is necessary to explain both the origin, and diversification of life on Earth."
The NCSE and TFN point out that a federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled in 2005 that teaching intelligent design in public schools is unconstitutional, regarding it as creationism in disguise. Should the Texas school board approve the materials reviewed here, the critics hint at "expensive legal challenges."
What's next? Teams of reviewers appointed by the Texas Education Agency will examine all of the proposed instructional materials in June and report to the TEA and State Board of Education. A public hearing and final vote on the materials is scheduled for July. Public schools could then purchase the materials for use in classrooms beginning in the 2011-2012 school year.
Rosenau, the NCSE programs and policy director, is optimistic the board won't approve International Databases Inc. materials on technical grounds. "Not even getting to the issue that it is creationist, it doesn't cover all the new standards as it is supposed to, it has typos, it has basic errors of fact," he told me. "It is hard to imagine it going anywhere."
Should it be approved, however, the company would go from an unknown entity to suddenly having access to the coveted Texas market, validating them as a player in the emerging e-textbook market. It would also open the door to allowing the material in a hardcopy textbook, Rosenau added.
"I'm sure the board could say, 'Look, we've already got an approved supplement that takes this perspective, so how can you say it would be irresponsible now to put that in your textbooks?' "
More stories on science education and intelligent design:
Tammy Kitzmiller, left, and Christy Rhem express their happiness during a news conference Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2005, in Harrisburg Pa., after hearing the verdicit from U.S. District Judge John E. Jones that prevents the Dover School District from teaching "intelligent design" in biology class. The debate lives on in Tennessee, where a bill passed the House of Representative on Thursday to protect teachers who challenge the theory of evolution.
By John Roach, Contributing Writer, NBC News
Tennessee legislators took a step closer Thursday to allowing controversial subjects such as intelligent design to be taught in the science classroom.
The House or Representatives voted 70-28 to pass a bill that would protect teachers from discipline if they challenge the scientific theory of subjects such as "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning."
Defenders of science education ranging from the American Association for the Advancement of Science to the Tennessee Science Teachers Association have come out against the bill, characterizing it as "unnecessary, anti-scientific and very likely unconstitutional."
Support for the bill comes from backers of the intelligent design movement at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Wash.
"There has been a widespread pattern of discrimination against educators who would challenge evolution in the classroom," Casey Luskin, a policy analyst with the institute, told Science Insider. "Schools censor from students the evidence against evolution. This [bill] protects the rights of teachers to teach in an objective way."
An identical bill is up for vote by the Senate Education Committee at the end of the month. If it follows the party line vote of the House, policy experts expect it to pass and to be signed into law.
Science Insider noted that if the bill passes, Tennessee would join Louisiana as the second state with specific protections for teaching "antievolution rhetoric."
Researchers found that craniofacial differences between contemporary men and women are less pronounced than they were in the 16th century.
By John Roach, Contributing Writer, NBC News
Female faces have gotten larger in Spain over the past four centuries while those of men have stayed essentially the same, according to a new study that suggests differences in the craniofacial features of men and women have become less pronounced.
The finding is based on the comparison of more than 200 skulls dating to 20th- and 16th-century Spain, as well as approximately 50 skulls from 20th-century Portugal using a state-of-the art 3-D shape analysis system.
The distinction between the males and females could be because diet and environmental changes impact males and females differently, and because females are more affected in the face than males, Ann Ross, an anthropologist at North Carolina State University, explained to me today.
"Females are the ones that are changing," she said. "There appears to be a size-related change over time in the Spanish population, and that's probably due to improved nutrition."
The National Museum of Natural History's Douglas Ubelaker, co-author of the study, told me that genetics and gene flow through the population are also factors in the changes the team found. "What we're trying to do is just document that it occurred and give some sense of where it is headed," he said.
The sexual differences among the faces were similar between 20th-century Spanish and Portuguese populations, implying that the standards for identifying sex in Spanish skulls can be applied regionally.
This information, in turn, can be used to help anthropologists studying population change, or even a crime investigator attempting to identify a body based on a partial skeleton.
"Because of the sophisticated databases that can now be built on these samples and others, we are in a much better position to make the right call when the forensics case shows up," said Ubelaker, who is a consultant on such cases.
Petri dishes containing colonies of two strains of E. coli bacteria that can be tracked by their different colors. By watching the change over time in the relative abundance of the two types, researchers were able to track new beneficial mutations as they arose.
By John Roach, Contributing Writer, NBC News
A slow and steady approach to evolution appears to give the winning edge, at least in a petri dish, according to a new study.
The finding stems from the long-term evolution project in Richard Lenski's lab at Michigan State University with the bacteria Escherichia coli. Lenski studies evolution through experiments on these bacteria, which have now grown for more than 50,000 generations.
In this experiment, Lenski and colleagues pitted four genetically distinct sub colonies of the E. coli against each other to find out which one would eventually take over a petri dish.
It turns out that the sub colonies of E. coli that acquired mutations more slowly — and at first appeared less fit — beat out their more rapidly evolving counterparts and eventually won the race.
The reason for the plodders' success comes down to what's called a higher evolvability — the potential to continue to adapt to the environment in which they live — than their speedier counterparts, according to the researchers, whose results were published in the March 18 issue of Science.
According to the analyses, after 500 generations, all the lineages had beneficial mutations to a gene called topA, which involves winding DNA into a tight coil to make it easier for turning genes on and off. But these mutations were slightly different in the slow and fast evolving colonies, a difference that would be the eventual downfall of the fast-evolving E. coli.
The sub colonies were allowed to evolve for a further 883 generations, and then the team looked to see which mutations had accumulated. This time they found a mutation in a gene called spoT, conferring an advantage to the slow-evolving bacteria that was absent in the speedsters, Nature News explains.
It turns out that the previous topA mutation in the speedsters rendered the potentially beneficial spoT mutation useless. Since only the plodders had this beneficial mutation, they went on to win.
Is there a scientific reason why the Duke Blue Devils are perennial basketball favorites? A professor from Duke says yes.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
A professor from Duke University says it's only natural that the NCAA's March Madness basketball tournament highlights the same teams year after year ... like Duke, for instance.
This sounds like either an attempt to get in good with the higher-ups at the university in North Carolina, or one of those "duh, right" studies that merely confirm common sense. If your sports team builds up a reputation, of course it'll continue to attract good athletes and coaches to keep up that reputation — and that goes for the Duke Blue Devils as well as other sports dynasties.
But the point behind the newly published research from Adrian Bejan, an engineering professor at Duke (and a former basketball star from Romania), is that sports dynasties serve to illustrate evolution at work.
"The science of sports evolution is a significant step in evolutionary biology, where the accepted view is that evolution is impossible to observe because of its long timeframe," Bejan said in a news release. "With sports, we can focus on a particular population of athletes and witness 'live' the evolution of the design and performance of this selected group."
Constructal law Bejan says only a few sports teams can rise to the top of a hierarchy, and that hierarchy can be predicted in line with a theory that he calls "constructal law." The theory, which Bejan developed 15 years ago, is based on the principle that flow systems evolve their design to minimize imperfections, reduce friction or other forms of resistance, and increase their efficiency with time.
As a college basketball program becomes successful, the "friction" involved in recruiting those prospects is reduced. Less effort has to be expended to bring in the best athletes, and that solidifies the university's standing in the athletic hierarchy. The way Bejan explains it, this process is as natural as the fact that a river cuts a deeper channel as time goes on.
"In this case it has to do with the players," Perry Haynsworth, a former student of Bejan's who contributed to the study, told the Duke Chronicle. "The easiest path for these high-school basketball players to the NBA is to the top 10 schools, and because of that these top 10 schools have more success."
For the record, the top 11 schools listed in the paper are, in descending order, UCLA, North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, Louisville, Indiana, Michigan State, Michigan, Cincinnati and Ohio State (rankings based on NCAA Final Four appearances). This year's anticipated top seeds, as projected by Dave Ommen for NBC Sports' "Beyond the Arc" blog, don't exactly track that list. Duke, Kansas and Ohio State are the only teams from Bejan's list of 11 that are projected to be No. 1 or No. 2 seeds when the NCAA announces its brackets on March 13. But Bejan emphasizes that his study is about long-term trends rather than any one year in particular.
To be sure, Cinderella teams can break into the Final Four, and the top-rated teams can be upset as well. But Bejan and his colleagues say a college that wants to establish itself in basketball's top tier would have to spend more on its program and recruiting efforts than the existing top-tier teams. By the same token, the top teams tend to keep their reputation even if they have a bad year once in a while ... like Duke, for instance.
"The principle is that winning will return to a campus such as Duke because Duke is one of those channels of processing the best talent in the country," Bejan told the Duke Chronicle.
Academics and athletics Bejan's analysis applies to academics as well as athletics, and he maintains that there's an evolutionary lesson in the way that colleges develop specialties. Universities, like species, have to balance the expenditure of resources for a variety of purposes. Some species have super-sharp hearing. Others rely more on their sense of smell or their sharp vision to survive. Similarly, some universities are better-known for academics than for athletics (Hooray for the Caltech Beavers!) while it's vice versa at some other universities I could name (but won't).
Some universities may show up on top-10 lists for athletics as well as athletics ... like Duke, for instance. But Bejan said "most of the universities appear only in one of the rankings — they seem to separate themselves into two different worlds." He maintains that academic powerhouses follow the same evolutionary rules that athletic powerhouses do.
This isn't the first time Bejan has blended athletics and evolution: In previously published research, he found that Olympic swimmers and sprinters have grown bigger, taller and faster over the past 100 years — recording an average growth rate that's almost three times as high as the wider population's average growth rate over the same time frame. More controversially, he has sought to explain why the top-rated sprinters tend to be black while the top-rated swimmers tend to be white. (He and his co-authors contend that it has to do with torso length, as measured by the position of the belly button.)
Do you think Bejan has hit the mark with his evolutionary analysis of March Madness, or has he thrown up an airball? Feel free to add your color commentary in the comment space below.
The figure shows the evolution of gene families in ancient genomes across the Tree of Life. The sizes of the little pie charts scale with the number of evolutionary events in lineages, slices indicate event types: gene birth (red), duplication (blue), horizontal gene transfer (green), and loss (yellow). The Archean Expansion period (3.33 to 2.85 billion years ago) is highlighted in green. Click here to see a larger version of the image.
By John Roach, Contributing Writer, NBC News
The collective genome of all life on Earth today went through a rapid growth spurt between 3.3 billion and 2.8 billion years ago, according to scientists who used computer algorithms to reconstruct the evolutionary history of thousands of genes.
He and colleague Eric Alm named this growth spurt the Archean Expansion. The expansion precedes an era known as the Great Oxidation, when oxygen began to accumulate in Earth's atmosphere and likely killed off large numbers of non-oxygen breathing life forms.
The computer model developed by David and Alm doesn't have the resolution required to show a causal link between the genetic expansion, the die-off of anaerobic life, and the emergence of bigger aerobic life forms. Nevertheless, "the timing is interesting," David noted.
"We see these genes coming online which have a lot to do with photosynthesis and metabolism, and concurrently there's a big diversification in the genetic repertoire," he said.
The research is based on the premise that DNA is a sort of living fossil, allowing scientists to peer back through time and reconstruct evolutionary histories.
"We inherit DNA from our ancestors, and so you can work backwards by looking at the genomic record in all the living organisms today to piece together what was going on in the past," David said. "That's the idea behind DNA in you an me almost being like a fossil."
To peer back in time, the researchers created family trees of closely related genes. It is similar to a family tree — with aunts, uncles and cousins — but instead of family members, the "branches" are DNA sequences from different organisms.
"What we found when we constructed these gene trees for all these different gene families is that 27 percent of the roots of these trees all seem to be dated to this period in Earth's history," David said.
Alm added in a news release that the findings prove "the histories of very ancient events are recorded in the shared DNA of living organisms. And now that we are beginning to decode that history, I have hope that we can reconstruct some of the earliest events in the evolution of life in great detail."
The findings were reported Sunday by the journal Nature. For more stories on related issues, check out the links below.