Tag Archives: Evolution

Music About Science

I have an opinion that might be unpopular around here: I don’t like music about science. My love of science and scientific knowledge cannot be impugned — my Ph.D. is all the evidence I need to make my case. I never would have made it through my 14 years of biology education if I didn’t love science. I even love boring science lecture — both hearing them and giving them. Music is also very important to me. I have been a casual musician for most of my life, and listening to music and making music are deeply fulfilling for me. There is a bunch of music out there that is about science, and it would be reasonable to guess that I would love this music. But I don’t. There is a time for music, and there is a time for a boring science lecture, but when I’m listening to music, what I want is not a boring science lecture.

Exhibit A:

Symphony of science is pretty popular. But let’s face it — this is literally just a boring science lecture that has been auto-tuned. The words of Carl Sagan, for example, are inspiring in their own right. I don’t think making them musical adds anything to them. If anything, I think his words are cheapened slightly by the gimmick.

Exhibit B:

I have a lot of love for Baba Brinkman, so I feel a little bit bad for listing him here. He is brilliant, great with words, and a good performer. I respect him a lot for using his medium to explain science. I particularly like the way he used this anti-evolution rally song as a base for this song about the science of political values and religion.

I got to see him perform once at an evolutionary psychology conference, and I really have nothing but love for him. For the times that I actually do want to listen to a boring science lecture set to music, I go straight to Baba Brinkman. But this doesn’t change the fact that his work is still essentially a boring science lecture, albeit spoken very rhythmically.

Exhibit C:

Hank Green’s “I Fucking Love Science” is cute. There are some clever lines, but it’s not what I want out of music. It is literal and a little bit lecture-ey at times. What I mean should be clear in a minute.

Please don’t misunderstand me — there is no judgement here. Musicians should write about whatever they want to write about, and people should listen to whatever they want to listen to. My feelings about the music I mention are just my own feelings. I also don’t mean to disparage any of these artists. I’ve tried writing music myself, and I can’t go around calling the kettle black.

This is not about what music I think people should or shouldn’t be writing and listening to, it’s just about what I want out of music. What do I want out of music? Some poetry. Some metaphor. The language of emotion. And would a drum solo kill you?

When I listen to music, I want to be able to identify with the emotions that are conveyed through the medium.

Take this song:

This song is reportedly about Kurt Cobain’s relationship with Tobi Vail, the drummer for Bikini Kill. You may not like this song as much as I do, but you will agree that at no point does this song, which is about a human relationship, sound like an anthropologist talking about the mating behavior of gorillas. The song is about the emotions, not the details. No boring lectures anywhere.

Kurt Cobain talks about his experience in this song without making the context perfectly clear. But it is deeply expressive and poetic, and it is exactly what I want out of a song.

Take another song about a relationship that ended:

Kris Kristofferson’s take on this topic has much more of a narrative style than Kurt Cobain’s. There is no question about what Me and Bobby McGee is about. But there is still poetry. He could have said, “Now she’s gone and I really miss her.” That would have communicated his point effectively, but there is no poetry to it. Instead, he chose to say, “and I’d trade all my tomorrows for one single yesterday.” Give me a minute to catch my breath.

I think the mistake that people make when writing music about science is talking like scientists instead of lyricists. There is a reason why we have scientists write our science, and musicians write our music. It has famously been said that, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Each of these media have their style, and limits to their application.

Here is what I would like to see: music about the experience of science, rather than the outcome of science. We have beautiful, poetic music about the experience of love, death, happiness, sex, jealousy, war, fatherhood, dissatisfaction, and basically every other human experience one could have. But very little beautiful, poetic music about science.

Consider, for a moment, Leonardo DaVinci. He was both a great scientist and a great artist. Remember that this was the guy who painted the Last Supper, the Mona Lisa, and the Vitruvian Man. If he was going to write a song about science, what would it have sounded like? “If the air passing over the top of a wing is moving faster than the air moving under the wing, it will reduce the pressure above the wing and create lift. La dee dee, la dee dah.” No, probably not.

Through my pursuit of science, I have experienced a wide range of emotions. Scientific discovery can be wonderful, beautiful, painful, emotional, and, at times, even exciting. Where is the music inspired by science that conveys these feelings?

You may disagree, or maybe I just haven’t heard the right music. What’s your favorite song about science?

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The Man Behind the Curtain Turns 1

The Man Behind the Curtain turns 1 today! In the past year, this blog has had over 4800 views from people in 104 nations. This surpassed what expectations I had, and I am looking forward to another good year.

The most popular posts this year were:

Dinosaurs are not Extinct

Hot or Not

Do genes skip generations?

Testing a Claim: Ceramic Knives

The least popular posts were:

Drug-Resistant Diseases

Skipping Generations Part 2

You’re Doing it Wrong, Part 2: Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

A UFO (which was my first post)

And these are my personal favorite posts:

For All Mankind

Dinosaurs are not Extinct

10% of our Brains

The Evolution of Flight

Thanks for reading! I hope 2015 will be even better. (Tomorrow I will go through and fix all of the broken images. Sorry about that.)

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Sex With Aliens

Science fiction is full of humans interbreeding with intelligent aliens from all over the galaxy.

In the original Star Trek series, Captain Kirk mates with a wide variety of aliens, although he never fathers any children with them that we know of. Spock is half Human, half Vulcan. There are several characters in Star Trek: The Next Generation who are the result of alien-human mixing, as well. Worf is 100% Klingon, but his wife, K’Ehleyr, is half Klingon and half Human. Their son, Alexander, is therefore one quarter Human and three quarters Klingon. Deanna Troi is half Human, half Betazoid. The list goes on and is certainly not limited to Star Trek.

Star Trek’s Spock is half Human and half Vulcan. Image from wikipedia.org

I hope I’m not ruining anyone’s fantasy by pointing out up front that this is not even remotely plausible.

Imagine a human trying to produce offspring with an insect or a tree. Once you’ve stopped laughing, imagine trying to do the same with a bacterium, which is as distantly related from humans as you can get on Earth. Now consider that reproducing with a life form from another planet is far less likely to work out than trying to reproduce with a bacterium from Earth.

For two different species to be reproductively compatible, they cannot have very much evolutionary distance between them. Zebras (Equus zebra), horses (Equus ferus) and donkeys (Equus africanus) can all reproduce with one another. Lions (Panthera leo) and tigers (Panthera tigris) can sometimes produce offspring. The common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) and the bonobo (Pan paniscus) can produce offspring. (As is typical of cross-species hybrids, the offspring of these pairs are not fertile themselves.) I hope you noticed a commonality among all of these matches: they are all in the same genus. Lions and tigers are both in the same genus (Panthera) and they can sometimes reproduce together, but neither the lion nor the tiger can reproduce with a chimpanzee or a zebra because they are not closely related. This is not a hard and fast rule, though. Many species that are in the same genus cannot reproduce together, and occasionally species that are not in the same genus can reproduce together.

The liger is a hybrid between a tiger (Panthera tigris) and a lion (Panthera leo). Image from wikipedia.org

Life on Earth began somewhere between 3 and 4 billion years ago. Since then, life has evolved and diversified to produce the wide range of species that we see today. Another planet with life would have had its own origin and its own evolution to produce whatever diversity that planet has in whatever amount of time it took. An intelligent species on another planet would be unable to reproduce with most of the other species on its planet, just as most species on Earth cannot reproduce with one another. Humans are not able to reproduce with any other species on our planet. Even chimpanzees and bonobos, which are our closest evolutionary relatives, cannot produce offspring with humans (though it is not for a lack of trying). We share almost 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees, and are physically capable of mating, and yet we cannot reproduce with them. So what are the chances of being able to reproduce with a species that evolved from a completely separate origin of life? In this particular case, the likelihood is roughly equal to the percent of our DNA that we share: 0%.


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10% Of Our Brains?

There is a new movie coming out later this month called “Lucy.” (See the trailer here.) The premise of this movie is that humans only use 10% of our brains, and Scarlett Johansson  gets superpowers by using more than 10% of hers. This idea that we only use 10% of our brains, but would be better if we used more, is a very persistent myth in our society.

Disclaimer: My point here is not to rain on anyone’s parade. I love science fiction movies, and if Luc Besson’s record is any indication, this one will probably be good. (Personal note: Luc Besson wrote and directed my favorite movie.) Even though I am a scientist, I am usually willing to suspend my disbelief for whatever premise the movie asks me to accept. I am not trying to convince anyone that they shouldn’t watch this movie or that it will suck because it gets some facts wrong. The release of this movie is just a convenient opportunity to talk about an oddly persistent myth.

Now back to the show…

My first exposure to this myth was probably as a child when I read the book My Teacher Fried My Brain — the second book in the My Teacher Is An Alien series. In this book, the school bully has his brain zapped by an alien device which makes him much smarter and a much more pleasant person. I can remember speculating later that very smart people like Albert Einstein probably used more like 50% of their brains.

But none of this is true. There have been several takedowns of the 10-percent-of-our-brains myth from a neuroscience perspective by people who are more qualified than I to discuss neuroscience. I am much more qualified to discuss this from an evolutionary angle.

Evolution is incremental. Traits evolve slowly over time, with each successive version of the trait being slightly better than the last. The brains of modern humans have a volume somewhere in the area of 1200 cubic centimeters (cc). Chimpanzee brains have less than a third of this volume. We evolved from an ape that was not exactly a chimpanzee, but we can use the chimp brain size as a point of comparison. Since our evolutionary divergence from our chimpanzee-like ancestors, our brains have tripled in size. This means that, during our evolution, individuals with 450cc brains survived and reproduced better than individuals with 430cc brains, and individuals with 500cc brains survived and reproduced better than individuals with 450cc brains. Our brains eventually grew to what they are now because the modern brain allowed individuals to survive and reproduce better than individuals that had anything less than a modern brain.

Human brain (top) compared to chimpanzee brain (bottom). Image from scientificamerican.com

The modern human brain is astonishingly expensive to build and maintain from a caloric standpoint. A typical adult male at rest requires 1800 Calories per day to function. That is, a man lying motionless but awake for 24 hours will burn 1800 calories just to maintain his body. This 1800 Calories is his “metabolic budget.” The metabolic budget is just the cost of every process within the body added up. Keeping the heart beating and the lungs breathing requires some of these calories. Replacing old, worn-out cells requires some more of these calories. The average adult male brain requires 414 of those Calories, which accounts for 23% of the total resting budget. Typical adult females require fewer Calories to function (1480) than adult males. The female brain requires about the same number of Calories as the male brain (400), but accounts for a slightly larger percent of the resting metabolic budget (27%).

Malcom Holliday (1986) studied the energetic cost of the brain at different stages of life. (The data above is his.) The brain is relatively more expensive at younger ages because the brain is growing very fast and because the brain accounts for a larger portion of the body’s overall mass.

Malcom Holliday (1986) studied the energetic cost of the brain at different stages of life. (The data above is his.) The brain is relatively more expensive at younger ages because the brain is growing very fast and because the brain accounts for a larger portion of the body’s overall mass.

Evolution is not wasteful. Acquiring enough energetic resources to survive was a big problem for our ancestors. Building a smaller brain would be less expensive. If the expense of building a bigger brain was not offset by the advantage it gives, it would never have evolved in the future. If humans suddenly found ourselves in an environment where our big brains were no longer an advantage for us, our brains would subsequently evolve to be smaller. (Remember that evolution does not always make things bigger, better and more complex.)

If the brain was larger (and therefore more energetically expensive) than it needed to be, individuals with a smaller brain would be able to spend that additional energy on other important things. They could spend it acquiring resources to support more offspring. They could spend it on growing bigger muscles and repairing more damage. Or they just wouldn’t require as much energy to survive and it would be harder to starve to death. This is to say that a brain that wastes 90% of its potential could not possibly evolve. Compare this to a centipede that only used 10 of its 100 legs or a cheetah that had the anatomy and physiology to run 70 miles per hour but never ran faster than 7mph. Evolution would not produce these traits, either.

In summary: a brain that leaves 90% of its potential untapped would not evolve. But don’t let this fact stop you from making good movies that use this as a premise. Luc Besson doesn’t tell me how to do my job, so I won’t tell him how to do his.

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A Journey Through Plant Evolution at the Lincoln Park Conservatory

I recently spent some time at the beautiful Lincoln Park Conservatory. It is very hot and humid in the greenhouse, which may not have been the most obvious choice on a day that was already 88º outside. Nevertheless, I thought it would be a good way to talk about the evolution of plants. My specialty in biology is animals, but I have always loved the story of plant evolution. Like all other major groups of life on Earth, plant life began in the water. Early plants were very reliant on water, but plants became less and less dependent on water as they evolved. In the water, life is easy. Dehydration is not a problem. Nutrients can be absorbed directly out of the water into the cells. The water will carry sperm for reproduction and disperse the offspring. Life in the water is good, but there was a lot of space to grow on land.

The Lincoln Park Conservatory is a great place to go. A cooler day is better.

The Lincoln Park Conservatory is a great place to go. A cooler day is better.


One of the first types of plants to live on land were the liverworts. They are very small, with leaves that lie almost flat on the ground. Liverworts have no ability to draw water up out of the ground, as later plants are able to do. As a result, they cannot grow very tall and must be damp all of the time. They cannot survive or reproduce without being wet.

Liverworts are one of the first plants to live on land.

My favorite room contains the primitive plants: ferns, moss, liverworts, and cycads.

My favorite room contains the primitive plants: ferns, moss, liverworts, and cycads.


Like liverworts, moss also cannot draw water up into their bodies. Are able to grow a little bit taller than the liverworts because they grow in dense mats that can trap water between individual plants. This allows them to grow up to about four inches tall.

Mosses do not dry out as easily as liverworts, but they do rely on water for reproduction. The male sperm must swim through the water to find a female plant.

Like an idiot, I forgot to take a picture of moss. This one form wikipedia.org will have to do.

Club Moss

Club moss are sometimes called “ground pines” because they can resemble pine trees, but they are neither pines nor moss. Modern club moss usually only grow to be a few inches tall, but during the Carboniferous period, when they were the dominant land plant, they grew as tall as modern trees.

Club moss are one of the first type of plants to have vascular tissue, which lets them draw water from the ground up into their bodies. This adaptation is of unparalleled importance for plants on land. For this reason, club moss were one of the first types of plants to be able to grow more than a couple of inches tall. Without vascular tissue, a plant more than an inch or two has no way of getting water to the upper part of the plant. Plants don’t need very much to live, but access to sufficient sunlight is one of their main requirements. When all of the plants around you are only two inches tall, a plant that can grow to be several feet tall or taller has an enormous advantage when it comes to getting sunlight. You can grow taller than your neighbors and spread out to get all the sun you want.

Club moss (not moss). Image from bio.sunyorange.edu

Coal is made of fossilized plants from the carboniferous period. The majority of coal is made up of ferns and club moss. Sometimes coal preserves the structures of the plants it was made from and we can use the coal fossils to learn about ancient plants.

A thin section of coal clearly shows the features of the stem of an ancient plant (in cross-section). Image from http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu


Evolutionarily speaking, ferns are slightly newer than the club moss. Like the club moss, ferns are have vascular tissue (so does everything else from here on).

Compared to most other plants, ferns grow sideways. The stem lies horizontally underground, and the fronds grow up out of the ground from it. When you see a cluster of fronds sticking up together, they are usually from the same plant.

Fern frond

Fern frond

Structures on the underside of the fronds, called “sori,” contain spores. These capsules break open, releasing the spores, and new ferns grow where the spores land.

Sori are clearly visible on the underside of fern fronds. These contain spores.

Sori are clearly visible on the underside of fern fronds. These contain spores.


Cycads look superficially like palms, pineapples or yuccas, but is not closely related to any of them. They were one of the dominant types of plants during the mesozoic era — the age of the dinosaurs.

Cycads were among the first plants to use pollen in reproduction. Pollen is produced by the male structures on plants, and is responsible for carrying sperm to the ovule in the female structures on other plants. Unlike the earlier plants, which require water for the sperm to swim through, pollen is carried by the wind. This is great for plants that live away from water and want to be able to reproduce with individuals that are far away. The problem is that it is fairly inefficient. Plants whose pollen is carried by the wind need to produce vast quantities of the stuff in order for some of it to get to other plants. I grew up in New Hampshire, where there a lot of white pine trees (which are not cycads, but also reproduce with wind-borne pollen). I got up many a morning to find my car completely covered in yellow pollen. All of that pollen that didn’t end up on the right part of the female plants is wasted energy.

Cycads were also among the first plants to have seeds, instead of spores like the older plants. Spores are fine, but they cannot travel over long distances or lie dormant for a more opportune time to sprout. A seed contains the plant embryo as well as nutrients to keep it alive for months or years. If a spore happens to land on the back of a bird on its way to the other side of the country, the embryo inside may not survive the trip because its mother didn’t pack it lunch. An embryo inside a seed will survive the same journey because it is surrounded in an oil-rich substance called “endosperm.” When we eat nuts, it is the endosperm that we are after.

Cycads can superficially resemble pineapples, yuccas or palms, but they are not part of the same group.

Cycads can superficially resemble pineapples, yuccas or palms, but they are not part of the same group.

Flowering Plants

Flowering plants became the dominant plants of the world during the late mesozoic, and today account for the majority of plant species.There are over a quarter million living species of flowering plants, compared to only about 12,000 species of fern, and fewer than 10,000 species of liverwort.

The flowering plants have two evolutionary advancements that allowed them to be so successful: flowers and fruit. These allow plants to solve two big problems in the area of reproduction.

Flowers represent an exchange of goods and services between plants and animals. Big, colorful, aromatic flowers are nature’s equivalent of an “eat here” sign. Flowers produce sugar-rich nectar that animals like ants, butterflies, birds, and bats like to eat. While these “pollinators” are eating the nectar, they get covered in pollen. When they go to the next flower, they drop some pollen off and pick up some more. This results in animals carrying pollen directly from one plant to the next, with very little waste. Remember all that energy that earlier plants wasted trying to pollinate my car? Flowers allow plants to use their energy more effectively. The energy this saves over relying on wind pollination is part of why flowering plants are so successful evolutionarily.

Flowers attract certain animals, which carry pollen between flowers, helping the plants reproduce.

Flowers attract certain animals, which carry pollen between flowers, helping the plants reproduce.

Spreading seeds is another problem for plants. If seeds just fall off the parent plant and onto the ground, some will roll away or get kicked away. The others will sprout right next to their parent and compete for the same nutrients and light. This will reduce the success of both the parent and the offspring. Some (but not all) flowering plants produce fruit to solve this problem.

Fruit is a sugar-rich substance that is easy to get eat, which surrounds the seed, which contains an oil-rich substance that is protected by a hard shell. In human terms, the plant “wants” you to eat the fruit, but does not “want” you to eat the seed. If you eat the seed, you are eating the tree’s offspring. If you (or another animal) eat the fruit, there is a good chance that you will swallow the seeds by accident. The hard shell protects it from being broken in your mouth or digested in your stomach. After eating the fruit, you (or whatever animal) will walk or fly away and eventually deposit the seeds far away in a nutrient-rich pile of fertilizer.

Flowering plants are better at life on land than any other plants. They can draw water and nutrients out of the soil through their roots and vascular tissue, and they are very good at reproducing and spreading their offspring without the aid of water. This is why they are beating all of the other plants.

Cladogram showing the evolutionary relationships of the plant groups and major evolutionary advancements.

Cladogram showing the evolutionary relationships of the plant groups and major evolutionary advancements.

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The Evolution of Flight

Out of several thousand species of birds, almost all of them can fly. They all have the ability to fly because they evolved from a common ancestor that could fly. Bats can all fly because they evolved from a common ancestor that could fly. But why can both birds and bats fly? Did they evolve from a common ancestor that could fly? While they did evolve from a common ancestor, this ancestor could not fly. How, then, are both birds and bats able to fly?

In biology, there is a concept called “convergent evolution.” Some types of organisms have similar traits because they evolved from a common ancestor that had those traits. With only a few exceptions, all mammals, amphibians and reptiles (including birds) have four limbs — two arms/wings and two legs. This is because these three lineages all evolved from a common ancestor that had four limbs. Similar traits that are due to common ancestry are called “homologous traits.”

Other types of organisms have similar traits but did not evolve from a common ancestor that had those traits. Fish and whales are a classic example of convergent evolution. They both have a tail fin that propels them through the water, forward fins that help them steer, a fusiform body that makes them hydrodynamic, and a dorsal fin that keeps them stable.

The dolphin and fish share many traits that facilitate an aquatic life. Image from wikipedia.org

But there are more differences than similarities. Here are a few:

  • The tail fin of a fish is oriented vertically, whereas the tail fin of a whale is oriented horizontally
  • Fish lay eggs, whereas whales give live birth
  • Baby fish are fed by a yolk sack in their egg, whereas baby whales are fed from mammary milk
  • Fish use gills to extract oxygen from the water, whereas whales breathe atmospheric air
  • Fish are cold-blooded, whereas whales maintain a high body temperature.
  • Fish have scales covering their skin, but whales do not.
  • Whales have typical mammalian wrist and finger bones inside their pectoral fins, but fish do not.
  • Whales have hair, but fish do not.

Whales do, of course, share a common ancestor with fish, but this common ancestor is not the reason that whales have their aquatic adaptations. The ancestors of whales first evolved into a terrestrial life, then evolved back into the water, much later in life.

When two or more different types of organisms evolve a similar trait independently, these traits are called “analogous traits” and the process of evolving these analogous traits is called “convergent evolution.”

Off the top of my head, I can think of nine independent evolutionary origins of flight — that is, nine separate events of convergent evolution. There are probably more that I don’t know about. Let’s start with the three best fliers that are currently alive: Birds, bats and insects.

Birds and bats are both tetrapods, so they are stuck with four limbs. They both use primarily their front limbs for flight, but they do it differently. Bird hand and wrist bones are fused together to make a short, stumpy end bone. Feathers produce the area required to produce lift.

The bones of a bird wing. Image from wikipedia.org

When birds are in flight, they keep their legs and feet tucked out of the way so they do not interfere with flying.

Canada goose in flight. Note that the legs are not used in flight. Image from wikipedia.org

Bats have a membrane of skin that stretches between their arms and legs that help produce lift. The legs and feet of bats are very important for flight.

Bat in flight. The legs are important in forming the wings. Image from wikipedia.org

Bats have elongated fingers that make up most of the wings. They use skin that is stretched between their fingers to create the area required to produce lift.

The arm bones in the bats and birds are homologous to one another, but their wings are the result of convergent evolution.

Insects have six legs and two pairs of wings. Insect wings are inflexible, except for where the connect to the body; a little bit like the oars on a boat. There are no bones or muscles inside the wings. Birds and bats have aerodynamic bodies that allow them to pass through the air efficiently. Some insects, like the dragonflies, have aerodynamic bodies, but bees and beetles do not.

Dragonfly. Image from wikipedia.org

The pterosaurs were not technically dinosaurs, but they were close relatives. Modern birds, which are dinosaurs, are not direct descendants of the pterosaurs, but birds are more closely related to the pterosaurs than they are to bats. Despite the closer genetic relatedness, the pterosaurs flight ability resembles bats more than birds in a variety of ways. First, they did not appear to have had feathers. Instead, they probably used a membrane of skin to form their wings much the way bats do.

Bats use fingers 2-4 (index through pinkie) for flight, and finger 1 (the thumb) for limited gripping. Pterosaurs only had four fingers, and only finger 4 was used for flight, whereas fingers 1-3 were used for gripping.

Pterosaur wing. Image from http://www.geol.umd.edu


Other, lesser fliers:

These are animals that fly sort of like a paper airplane. They cannot propel themselves once they are in the air — they have to jump to get their initial momentum. But once they are in the air, they can control their direction and create an air foil to slow their falling. Humans can do this with the aid of a wingsuit:

Flying squirrels: A little bit like bats, flying squirrels have a membrane of skin that stretches between their front and rear legs. This allows them to glide over longer distances than they would otherwise be able to jump.

Flying squirrel in flight. Image from wikipedia.org


Flying lizards: Although the word “dinosaur” literally means “terrible lizard,” lizards and dinosaurs are completely different types of reptile. Flying lizards in the genus “Draco” are not very closely related to the flying dinosaurs. The flying lizards are very unusual because they do not use any of their four limbs for flying. Instead, they are able to spread out their ribs to form fairly immobile wings which allow them to glide for short distances.


Flying dragon. Image from wikipedia.org

Flying fish: Flying fish are much better at flying than you would expect. They use their tail to get out of the water and get speed. Once they are in the air they can glide for fairly long distances. If they want to increase their speed, they can put their tail back into the water and give themselves another push. This makes them the only glider that I know of that can add energy to their glide without landing.

Flying Fish. Image from wikipedia.org


Flying frogs: Like bats, flying frogs create “wings” by stretching skin between long fingers. Unlike bats, the “wings” of the flying frogs are limited to their feet, and do not include any skin on the arms or legs.

Flying frog in flight. Image from http://endangeredliving.files.wordpress.com/

Flying snakes: To people who are afraid of snakes, nothing sounds more horrifying than snakes that can fly. But don’t worry — the flying snakes are the worst flyers of the group. They are able to flatten out their bodies to create a very minimal air foil. Their “flight” looks a lot like jumping or falling, but research has shown that they are able to steer themselves in the air. It may not seem like I should have included these in a list of things that evolved to fly, but remember that everything that evolved to fly had to go through many stages of flying ability. In the first stages, the animals would have just been jumping. In later stages, they would have a rudimentary ability to glide and navigate. For this reason, I firmly consider these snakes to be an example of incipient flight.



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Drug-Resistant Diseases

Drug-resistant pathogens are in the news more and more these days. The World Health Organization recently released a report about the declining effectiveness of antibiotics. Many believe that the age of antibiotics is coming to an end. This is very troubling, given that antibiotics are unquestionably one of the greatest advancements in the fight against disease.

Infectious diseases are caused by a variety of organisms: viruses (HIV, chicken pox, dengue fever, ebola, influenza, rotavirus), bacteria (tuberculosis, meningitis, gonorrhea, tetanus, whooping cough), worms (schistosomiasis, ascariasis, whipworm, pinworm, elephantiasis, river blindness), protists (malaria, sleeping sickness, giardia, leishmaniasis, chagas disease, cryptosporidium), and fungi (athlete’s foot, thrush, valley fever, aspergillosis).

Organisms that cause disease (such as those listed above) are not fundamentally different from the organisms that do not cause disease. Parasites are subject to evolution by natural selection just like anything else.

A toxin may broadly be defined as a chemical that negatively affects the physiology of an organism when the two come in contact. Drugs that we use to fight parasitic infections within a person’s body are toxins. Ideally, the toxicity of the drug is much greater to the parasite than it is to the host.

There are many naturally occurring toxins in the environment. Ethanol, along with many other alcohols, is a very powerful toxin to most living things. It is because of this toxicity that we use various alcohols to sterilize various surfaces (including our hands, in the case of hand sanitizers) and sometimes instruments.

Humans have a fairly high resistance to ethanol, but not to other alcohols. Most people can drink the equivalent of a couple of ounces of pure ethanol and be fine. The same quantity of methanol or propanol (which are chemically very similar to ethanol) would lead to pretty severe physiological consequences, including death. The ability of humans to metabolize ethanol is attributed to our evolutionary history of eating fruit. Fruit contains a lot of sugar, which is a good source of energy. Ancient people who ate fruit whenever it was available had more energy available in their bodies for building muscles, repairing damage, reproduction, hunting, and whatever else they needed to do. If fruit sits on the tree (or the ground) too long, yeast lands on it and starts eating the sugar for itself. When yeast eats sugar, ethanol is produced as a waste product. If a person eats that fruit, they will also be eating some ethanol. A person who is able to withstand a lot of ethanol is able to eat a lot of fruit and gain the energetic benefits of doing so. Over time, the average human became more and more able to cope with consuming toxic ethanol. Modern humans can safely consume quantities of ethanol that would be fatal to many other organisms.

Methanol, ethanol and propanol are all very similar molecules. Ethanol is the only one we can consume.

Methanol, ethanol and propanol are all very similar molecules. Ethanol is the only one we can consume.

So what does any of this have to do with diseases? Just as humans evolved to cope with the toxicity of ethanol, pathogens can evolve to deal with the toxicity of the drugs we use to fight them.

The most toxic substance to an organism is going to be one that is “evolutionarily novel” — that is, the substance is one that the species has not encountered over its evolutionary history. Why? Because a species that frequently encounters a particular toxin will evolve physiological mechanisms to resist the negative effects of the toxin. For example, if you want to poison a human with an alcohol, you’d use methanol, not ethanol, because ethanol is more evolutionarily familiar to us.

When we use the same drug to fight the same pathogen over many years, the drug becomes evolutionarily familiar to the pathogen, and the pathogen can evolve to cope with it. For decades, physicians used the same antibiotics to treat bacterial infections, including those caused by Staphylococcus aureus. After they used the antibiotic methicillin for a long enough time, the methicillin became a normal part of the bacteria’s environment and the bacteria evolved to cope with it, eventually becoming Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.

The rate of evolution for any given species is inversely-related to the generation time of the species — species with long generation times evolve very slowly, and species with short generation times evolve very quickly.

Organisms with a shorter generation time evolve faster

Organisms with a shorter generation time evolve faster

This is because evolution is a process that happens in between generations. If new generations occur more closely together, more evolution can happen in a shorter time. The human generation is about 20-30 years. A generation for bacteria can be as short as 20 minutes — that’s 72 generations per day, over 26,000 per year, and over a half million within the span of a single human generation. For perspective, a half million human generations is about 10 million years. 10 million years ago, gorillas, chimpanzees and humans had not yet evolved into separate species. What does this mean for antibiotic resistance? It means that bacteria can evolve very quickly to be immune to a given antibiotic.

This is obviously bad news for us. Not all pathogens evolve as quickly as bacteria, but they are all pretty fast. Recent history is full of examples of drugs that worked well until the disease evolved immunity towards it.

Malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli, gonorrhea and many others all have strains that have evolved immunity or resistance to the drugs we use to treat or cure them. We are going to need a new way of fighting these diseases.

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