Category: Biology

Walk in the Garden

| July 6, 2016 | Reply

I can see the stone wall of the Missouri Botanical Garden from my front porch. It often beckons to me. Though my walks are often brisk, I bring a camera to slow me down to catch a brilliant color, an engaging pattern or a playful reflection. Sometimes, I sit for 5 or 10 minutes and try to meditate.

IMG_0266 MBG Music night

At the MBG, there’s people watching, of course, and this often causes me to think of the people I care most about–how could this not be the case in such a beautiful place?

IMG_0358 MBG Music night

But the two things come to my mind almost every time I visit the garden:

1. David Attenborough’s “Private Life of Plants.” (It’s about the only thing I keep my VCR for – it’s not available in Zone 1 on DVD). It’s a beautiful video series that blurs the line between flora and fauna, when plant growth is run in fast-motion.


Read More


| May 30, 2015 | Reply

I’m enjoying photography, especially portraits. The final products are fun to create, but what is it that I’m looking for in a portrait? I’m convinced that photographers can benefit from some of the findings on what it means to be attractive by those who study biology, and specifically, evolution.

The above-linked Wikipedia article has lots of information on this topic of physical attractiveness as explored scientifically. Here’s an excerpt pertaining to women:

Research has attempted to determine which facial features communicate attractiveness. Facial symmetry has been shown to be considered attractive in women, and men have been found to prefer full lips, high forehead, broad face, small chin, small nose, short and narrow jaw, high cheekbones, clear and smooth skin, and wide-set eyes. The shape of the face in terms of “how everything hangs together” is an important determinant of beauty. A University of Toronto study found correlations between facial measurements and attractiveness; researchers varied the distance between eyes, and between eyes and mouth, in different drawings of the same female face, and had the drawings evaluated; they found there were ideal proportions perceived as attractive. These proportions (46% and 36%) were close to the average of all female profiles. Women with thick, dark limbal rings in their eyes have also been found to be more attractive. The explanation given is that because the ring tends to fade with age and medical problems, a prominent limbal ring gives an honest indicator of youth.

In a cross-cultural study, more neotenized (i.e., youthful looking) female faces were found to be most attractive to men while less neotenized female faces were found to be less attractive to men, regardless of the females’ actual age. One of these desired traits was a small jaw. In a study of Italian women who have won beauty competitions, it was found that their faces had more “babyish” (pedomorphic) traits than those of the “normal” women used as a reference.


Read More

Why there are not any civilizations without temples – Video featuring Jonathan Haidt

| October 31, 2014 | 1 Reply

Jonathan Haidt explains why there are not any civilizations without temples, starting at minute 14 of this video. This is the 2013 Boyarsky Lecture at Duke University. About 10,000 years we went from an almost instantaneous transition from hunter-gathers to Babylon. A huge part of our evolutionary development is this newly learned ability of humans to circling around sacred objects (religious and political objects are two dominant examples) in order to form teams. As we circle around, we generate a social energy that knits the social fabric, but also encourages Manichean thinking–us versus them, blinding us to our own faults and faulty thinking. No shades of gray are allowed when we are intensely groupish. This kind of groupish thinking is radically incompatible with scientific thinking. Science is squeezed out, replaced by sacred objects, groupishness and authoritarian obeisance.

At min 24, Haidt gets to the crux of his talk. Those of us who focus on the “care” (empathy) foundation of morality, often circle about it bonding with others like us, rejecting and denigrating the impulses and ideas that tend to drive those who are politically conservative.


Read More

How many ancestors do you have?

| August 17, 2014 | Reply

How many ancestors do you have? This article is a delightful excursion into math and biology.

I’m always fascinated to hear people over-focused on only that one twig of their family that carries their surname. Too bad we can put a button to see everyone related to us glow, the glow brighter based on how closely they are related to us. Would anyone NOT glow? Maybe such a fantasy device would make us less likely to start wars.


Read More

How Tigers Get their Stripes

| March 15, 2014 | Reply

Alan Turing was an amazing man. London researchers have recently substantiated one of his theories regarding repeated biological patterns:

[The] study, funded by the Medical Research Council and to be published online in Nature Genetics, not only demonstrates a mechanism which is likely to be widely relevant in vertebrate development, but also provides confidence that chemicals called morphogens, which control these patterns, can be used in regenerative medicine to differentiate stem cells into tissue.
The findings provide evidence to support a theory first suggested in the 1950s by famous code-breaker and mathematician Alan Turing, whose centenary falls this year. He put forward the idea that regular repeating patterns in biological systems are generated by a pair of morphogens that work together as an ‘activator’ and ‘inhibitor’.


Read More

Jump start to the origin of life?

| July 29, 2013 | Reply

Was the origin of life willy-nilly? Or was it primed by pre-existing affinities in non-living matter that gave the creation of the first replicating for of life a jump start? New Research suggests the latter:

The chemical components crucial to the start of life on Earth may have primed and protected each other in never-before-realized ways, according to new research led by University of Washington scientists.

Read more at: could mean a simpler scenario for how that first spark of life came about on the planet, according to Sarah Keller, UW professor of chemistry, and Roy Black, UW affiliate professor of bioengineering, both co-authors of a paper published online July 29 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This article reminds me of some of the theoretical work done by Stuart Kaufmann of the Santa Fe Institute. Both the affinity of matter to tend toward life and autocatalysis reduce the space of possibilities, making life less of a needle in a haystack proposition.


Read More

Introduction to your microbiome

| May 19, 2013 | Reply

From the NYT–most of the cells that comprise you do not contain your DNA:

I can tell you the exact date that I began to think of myself in the first-person plural — as a superorganism, that is, rather than a plain old individual human being. It happened on March 7. That’s when I opened my e-mail to find a huge, processor-choking file of charts and raw data from a laboratory located at the BioFrontiers Institute at the University of Colorado, Boulder. As part of a new citizen-science initiative called the American Gut project, the lab sequenced my microbiome — that is, the genes not of “me,” exactly, but of the several hundred microbial species with whom I share this body. These bacteria, which number around 100 trillion, are living (and dying) right now on the surface of my skin, on my tongue and deep in the coils of my intestines, where the largest contingent of them will be found, a pound or two of microbes together forming a vast, largely uncharted interior wilderness that scientists are just beginning to map.


Read More

Early human-neanderthal ancestor remains identified

| April 2, 2013 | 1 Reply

This is an incredible story. Scientists have identified a 30,000-40,000 year old hominid ancestor whose DNA indicates that it is part Human, part Neanderthal.

If further analysis proves the theory correct, the remains belonged to the first known such hybrid, providing direct evidence that humans and Neanderthals interbred. Prior genetic research determined the DNA of people with European and Asian ancestry is 1 to 4 percent Neanderthal.

Those were amazing times in Europe, where humans and Neanderthals co-existed. One wonders whether this co-existence was at all peaceful. Regardless, apparently I (along with many people of European and Asian ancestry) carry some Neanderthal genetic coding.

When I am asked about my “race,” I have sometimes (when I would not receive any sort of benefit or privilege for doing so) indicate “African.” I’ve previously argued that we’d all be better off declaring that we are African, because the categories or “race” are as scientifically deficient as they are culturally divisive. But now, thanks to this new finding, I have the option of indicating that my “race” is Part-human, part Neanderthal, out of Africa via Europe, currently living in the U.S. Or something like that.


Read More

Plain Broun Wrapper (or, What’s Really In That Bag?)

| October 8, 2012 | 2 Replies

I thought I might write about something other than politics this morning, but some things are just too there to ignore.  But perhaps this isn’t strictly about politics.

Representative Paul Broun of Georgia recently said the following.  I’m pulling the quote from news sources so I don’t get it wrong.

“God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. It’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior. There’s a lot of scientific data that I found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I believe that the Earth is about 9,000 years old. I believe that it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says.

[More . . . ]


Read More