Carnival of Evolution, March 2013

Carnival of Venice 2010

Welcome, readers, to the 57th Carnival of Evolution. This past month, the 204th birthday of Charles Darwin just happened to fall on Mardi Gras, a celebration of life’s exuberant excesses. So put on your most dazzling mask, and join us for an exploration of the endless forms most beautiful to be found in the living, evolving world.

Evolutionary science

In addition to Darwin Day and Mardi Gras, February is the month of Valentine’s Day. So it’s maybe appropriate that evolutionary bloggers had sex on the brain. Joachim describes new research on the specific forms of natural selection that might have supported the evolution of sexual reproduction. Right here at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!, Amy Dapper writes about one consequence of sex, among grass gobies: “sneaker” males with specialized sperm. And Jeremy Yoder (yours truly) takes a look at daisies that attract pollinators by fooling them into mating with deceptive flower petals.

Meanwhile, Hannah Waters explains why sociable weaver birds nest together—because it pays to stay home and help their parents.

While most songbird species breed before they even turn a year old, sociable weavers rarely breed before the age of two. Instead, these younger birds help raise other nestlings–their siblings as well as unrelated chicks–by gathering food and maintaining the nest’s fluffy interior chambers and external sticks and grass.

Continue reading

The Data on Science and Religion

This post is a guest contribution by Amy Dapper, the proprietor of Evolve It!, a blog about (sometimes) cool (mostly) science-y things. Amy is a PhD student at Indiana University studying evolutionary theory.

Religious beliefs, or more likely disbelief, tend to be a hot topic on science blogs, particularly those with a evolutionary bend.  However, when these topics come up there is often more opinion than science, which is why I was excited to see an research article in last weeks edition of Science titled ‘Analytical Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief’ [1].  The article, authored by Will M. Gervais and Ara Norenzayan, uses a series of five studies to build a causal link between analytical cognitive processes and religious disbelief.  I thought it would be fun to delve into the science behind their audaciously titled article for my guest post here at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense.

The authors approach understanding the cognitive underpinnings of religious belief and disbelief using the dual-process theory of human thought.  This theory posits that we use two distinct and separate systems for reasoning.  The first, creatively termed System 1, is intuitive and produces a rapid response based only on prior knowledge and experience.  Previous research has found that individuals who rely more heavily on this intuitive cognitive system are more likely to believe in supernatural entities, and thus tend to have stronger religious beliefs [2]. On the other hand, System 2 is rational and produces a slower response based upon logic and reasoning that, when employed, often overrides the conclusions of System 1.  The authors hypothesize that, in contrast to System 1, this analytical cognitive system promotes religious disbelief.

Continue reading

Crossing those curious parallels: language and biological evolution

The language of evolution (Darwin, 1859)

This post is a guest contribution by James Winters, the proprietor of  Replicated Typo, a group blog about language and evolution. James holds a MSc in the evolution of language and cognition from the University of Edinburgh, and is contemplating going on for a doctorate. If you have an idea for a post, and you’d like to contribute to Nothing in Biology Makes Sensee-mail Jeremy to inquire.

Just over 140 years ago, Charles Darwin famously discussed the striking parallels between the forces that govern language change and the evolutionary processes underlying species formation:

“The formation of different languages and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously parallel… We find in distinct languages striking homologies due to community of descent, and analogies due to a similar process of formation… We see variability in every tongue, and new words are continually cropping up; but as there is a limit to the powers of memory, single words, like whole languages, gradually become extinct” (Darwin, 1871: 78-79).

Darwin recognised, along with several other linguists of the period such as August Schleicher and Mikołaj Kruszewski, that language falls under the remit of evolutionary principles. Since then, there has been a renewed and growing interest in evolutionary (Croft, 2000) and ecological (Mufwene, 2000) theories of language change, with biological, cultural and linguistic forms of evolution being captured by the more general rubric of Complex Adaptive Systems. First coined by Holland (1992), CAS are a subset of nonlinear dynamical systems in that they exhibit emergent properties as a result of multiple, interconnected elements. However, it is the capacity to evolve and adapt that differentiates language and biology from these other systems, with the key concept being their ability to learn: past experiences filter through, or influence, future states of the system due to cumulative amplification dynamic (Deacon, 2010).

Continue reading