Blog Relaunch!

In hindsight, I abandoned this blog 2.5 years ago, only approving the occasional comment that showed up in my e-mail inbox. Now I am relaunching it under a new name with a new purpose.

Much has happened since my unintentional abandonment. As can be seen in this blog’s history, I transitioned from wanting to be a biologist to being a historian of biology. Now that I am a Ph.D. student in the University of Minnesota’s Program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, I think I have succeeded!

Although I have wanted to resuscitate this blog for a couple of years, the burden of coursework prevented me from ever doing so. This was mostly a procrastination-fueled excuse that I can no longer accept. Furthermore, and this is silly, I could never come up with a name that pleased me. “Kele’s Science Blog” clearly no longer worked, and “Kele’s History of Science Blog” would be terrible.

Now the title is “Kestrels and Cerevisiae.” This reflects the (hopefully) dual purposes of this blog: Cerevisiae, from Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or yeast, represents experimental evolution (and work on them is what inspired my interest in the topic); Kestrels, a small falcon, represents my interest in birds, and I am planning on including some history of ornithology here to satisfy that curiosity. I also have a love for the American prairie, so if I can find a way to integrate the prairie with the history of science, that will appear also. Unfortunately I could not come up with a good w-word for the prairie since as you may have noticed, K and C are my initials.

Anyway, I will end this post here. I simply wish to announce the blog’s return with a new name, a new purpose and most importantly, new content! I hope you enjoy my work here!

The Non-Linearity of the History of Science

As I mentioned in my last post, in a history of biology course I am sitting in on we were discussing Cuvier, and if we were discussing Cuvier, we were probably also discussing catastrophism vs. Lyell’s uniformitarianism. Which is true.

The story that is frequently told about this debate and its influence upon Darwin is, as is usual, simpler and a lot less interesting than what actually happened.

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The Historical Importance of Modularity

I am currently sitting in on a graduate philosophy of biology seminar and the theme of this semester’s seminar is evo-devo and we recently discussed the concept of modularity. I’m also sitting in on a history of biology course and we have talked a little about the early 19th century French scientist, Georges Cuvier. While attending the seminar, I was delighted to make a historical link between the two! (And oddly enough, one of the works we read in the seminar was a chapter from a book on modularity co-authored by Gunther Wagner which opens with the same link I had made.)

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Book Review: Biology’s First Law by McShea and Brandon (2010)

Book coverBiology is typically known as a science without laws. There is evolutionary theory, of course, but it’s quite complex and looks different depending on what level you are looking at it; nothing like Newton’s Force = mass * acceleration. Biology does have quite a few “rules” though, such as Cope’s rule, which states that “population lineages tend to increase in body size over evolutionary time,” but there, of course, always exceptions to the rule. The existence or non-existence of laws in biology (and specifically, evolution) is a large matter of debate in philosophy of biology and I am certainly not qualified to discuss it (especially because I haven’t read much about it!).

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Ants and Their Castes in the Spencer-Weismann Controversy

Wikipedia: Meat eater ant feeding on honey

Ant (Wikipedia)

Ants are evolutionarily weird and are quickly rising in my favorite organisms list.  The same evolutionary principles apply to ants as they apply to us, of course, but because ants are haplodiploid, live in large colonies, and have a caste system, biologists have to apply the same principles differently – it isn’t exactly intuitive. Ants (and other insects such as bees and termites) are frequently the subjects of hot debate when it comes to kin selection, but their role in evolutionary disputes is over a century old. Charles Darwin discussed them in The Origin of Species, but they were later the center of the controversy between Herbert Spencer and August Weismann.

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Wait. What? Herbert Spencer was a Lamarckian?

While reading Peter J. Bowler’s The Eclipse of Darwinism, I was surprised to find out that the “social Darwinist”* Herbert Spencer was actually more Lamarckian than Darwinian. He apparently expressed Lamarckian views prior to the 1859 publication of The Origin of Species, and while he accepted Darwinian explanations and the theory of natural selection, Spencer believed Lamarckism – defined (here) as the inheritance of acquired characteristics through use/disuse – was the more important of the two theories. In fact, in his article, “The Inadequacy of Natural Selection,” Spencer states quite strongly that “either there has been inheritance of acquired characters, or there has been no evolution” (621).

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When the developmental context changes, so do the master controllers

In my last post, I mentioned that I was reading Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution and while I will highlight its major themes in a later post, I wanted to again briefly focus on one of its essays that I found fascinating. Developmental biologist H. Frederik Nijhout’s essay “The Ontogeny of Phenotype” (based on a 1997 paper) primarily argues that developmental pathways cannot be isolated from their genetic background, i.e., context matters, and the integration of developmental networks are also not cast in stone. There is a potential and remarkable fluidity to developmental systems that I was not previously aware of.

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“Niche construction” before “niche construction” was cool?

One of the most useful aspects of being aware of the history of science is that much like literature and the arts, one can trace the historical origins of ideas and make connections among various thinkers who lived at different times. Last week’s post was a great example of such a connection: the arguments of Gould & Lewontin were articulated over 70 years before 1979 by TH Morgan, and more astoundingly, William Bateson (who even nailed down the idea of a “spandrel”). While there may be no link between Gould & Lewontin and Morgan & Bateson, this example shows us that biologists have had to argue against adaptationism since at least 1903. We can see a clear historical trend.

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Allele Origination by Intergenic Recombination (Adaptive Recursion IV)

ResearchBlogging.orgNew alleles are normally said to arise from mutations, but recombination can be just as potent. Recombination relies on new mutations, of course, but its shuffling power increases the number of possible allele combinations. Biologists Jeffrey Feder and Sebastoam Velez found that the Jamaican click beetles use recombination to generate their unique bioluminescent polymorphisms, but this recombination is between two different, but related, genes, and creates a novel allele cycling system.

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