Bloggin' 'bout science and life

Category: Evolution Page 1 of 2

American Naturalist Covers

(This post was first published on the website)

The American Naturalist was first published in March 1867. Over the last 150 years, AmNat has had 16 different covers. Below is a gallery of those covers, with the dates they were used. Click on any image to bring up the full-sized gallery.

One of the fascinating features to trace through the covers is how the motto of the journal changed through the years.


The Maximum Impact Factor Measure

I used to be the Editor-in-Chief of the American Naturalist, one of the oldest scientific journals in North America.  The American Naturalist published its first issue two years before Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species, and I think that AmNat, as it’s affectionately called, is the world’s best journal for papers in evolution (and ecology and behavior). 

Today, our Managing Editor, Trish Morse, brought to my attention some of the best evidence of AmNat‘s significance.  AmNat is number 113 on the list of sources most cited by the Oxford English Dictionary.  Only 6 other scientific publications are ahead of us on the list.  That seems like a much better measure of the importance of a scientific journal’s contribution to knowledge than Impact Factors or other so-called measures of importance. 

AmNat, at 113, is two ahead of Robert Burns (pretty impressive) at 115 and behind Ayenbite of Inwyt at 112. Who or what is Ayenbite of Inwyt you ask?  Look it up!


Where Does It Say That Evolution Does Not Happen?

I was sitting in church a couple of weeks back on Christmas Eve waiting for the service to start.  As I usually do to pass the time, I picked up the Bible (what else are you going to do in church?), and I had a revelation about what I work on – namely evolution.    

This revelation came to me in the form of a simple question.  Where in the Bible does it say that evolution does not happen?


American Society of Naturalists Presidential Address 2016

Here’s the Presidential Address I gave at the 2016 American Society of Naturalists annual meeting in Austin, Texas.



Is There A Best Way To Choose A PhD Dissertation Topic?

For every new graduate student, the first major headache is what their dissertation will be about. In many areas of science, graduate students have very little choice. The laboratory leader essentially assigns a topic to the student, based on funding requirements and the laboratory structure.

However, in ecology, evolution and behavior, most laboratories still work on the principle that each graduate student must develop their own thesis topic.  Of course this is done in consultation with their dissertation supervisor, and it is often closely associated with other research that is being done by others in the laboratory.  It may even form a part of the larger project of the laboratory.  However, the student must develop the questions.  In this post, I want to discuss the two main ways that students in these disciplines approach this most important of problems for them.


A Seminar I Gave At Harvard

Here’s a video of a seminar I gave at Harvard in 2009 in their Biodiversity, Ecology, and Global Change Lecture Series in their Center for the Environment.


A Brief Thought On “Race”

Last year in our Intro Biology course, I gave a couple of new lectures on human races. When you look at the genetic basis of race, you come to the conclusion below. In these lectures, I used President Obama as my example. His mitochondrial DNA is completely from Northern Europe (his mom’s ancestry), and his nuclear DNA is a 1:1 mix of northern Europe and Africa. If you only looked at his mitochondrial DNA, you’d conclude he was from Northern Europe, but if you considered his nuclear DNA, you’d get a more mixed picture. And in fact, we’re all like that.

As part of our class last year, we sequenced the genomes of all the students in the class. My sequence indicated that I’m 99.7% European, but I’m also 0.2% East Asian & Native American. So should I also tick off the Asian or Native American box on the next census form? My X-chromosome is most likely from Scandinavia (i.e., the X-chromosome I have has the highest frequency in Scandinavian populations of humans). So should I say I’m Scandinavian. But my Y-chromosome is most likely from Spain. So am I Hispanic? I also happen to be 2.7% Neanderthal, so I want that box to check for the next census as well. (Race very quickly starts to be “ethnic” and not “racial” as you can see here, too.)

This video from Vox does a great job explaining the complexities of race in a simple manner.

Speaking as a biological scientist, there is no gene for race. What we have are simply genes for skin color, and hair color and texture. Many of these traits are the result of natural selection for local adaptations (e.g., skin color), and probably sexual selection for what was considered locally attractive attributed in a mate (e.g., hair color and texture). Are those really the fundamental traits for evaluating a person (sarcasm!)? That is not to say that race is not important. As a white guy from the south, I know what “race” does and means. “Race” is mainly a cultural construct, and since culture is inherited from ancestors as well, the cultural and physical get conflated.

When you start trying to quantify race biologically (read genetically), you quickly realize that this is a futile exercise. We’re all ancestrally mosaic mongrels. If you think you’re racially “pure”, my advice to you is don’t have your genome sequenced. You are definitely not going to like what you find.


Perverse Incentives In Making Public Policy About Biological Issues

When I teach our Science of Life course, which is our version of Intro Biology, I cover lots of topics that will be helpful to future health professionals, because that’s what 70% of this class typically is.  I focus particularly on the importance of evolutionary thinking for medical issues.  This might be the only evolution these students ever get!  I also try to get very long discussions going on the implications of the biological issues for making public policy, either good or bad.


HMS Beagle

If you’re an evolutionary biologist and you’re going to build a ship model, what ship should you build?  That’s an easy question – the HMS Beagle. That’s the ship that took Charles Darwin around the world on his voyage of discovery as a young man.  His adventures and discoveries on this voyage are chronicled in his first book The Voyage of the Beagle.

It took about 3 months of weekends, scattered over 6-8 years (I’ve lost track), to finish it. UPDATE: 22 March 2015, I finished the glass case to cover the model.  That came out well as well.  


Kitchen table and chairs

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Kitchen table and chairs made from cherry and maple in 2017. The table top is made from tongue&groove maple flooring left over from out house renovations.


Darwin Was Wrong About A Lot of Things

Now that’s a provocative title coming from an evolutionary biologist, isn’t it? Well, it’s meant to be.

I am continually amazed by both creationists and evolutionary biologists alike in the ongoing “debate” about the validity of evolution.  Many creationists feel that if they can find a single instance in which Charles Darwin was wrong about the workings of evolution, the entire idea that biological evolution shapes the biota of the world around us will be shown to be a complete fraud.  Moreover, many evolutionary biologists fall to an extremely defensive position because of this.


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