Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Endless Forms Most Beautiful

If you want a good read, I strongly recommend Sean Carroll's Endless Forms Most Beautiful, briefly discussed earlier. This is a great synthesis of that branch of biology called evolutionary developmental biology(Evo Devo) which sits at the intersection of evolution and developmental biology and which is just beginning to go mainstream.

Triple Labeled Drosophila Larva. Used with permission:

Carroll makes the case that I try to pound into my students-namely that living things and the processes that go on in them are united by common descent and he does it with lots of cool examples that will quickly find themselves incorporated into my teaching and into my thinking about population genetics and evolution.

The last chapter is particularly relevant here in Kansas where the evolution vs Intelligent Design "controversy" is in full swing. To briefly summarize and comment:

Carroll reminds us of the scientific illiteracy of the United States compared to other countries: for example 52 percent of Americans do not know that the earliest humans did not live with dinosaurs. This is a problem for biology since as we know, evolution is the basis for biology as a science.

He then argues that we ought to stop teaching that evolution in terms of change in gene frequencies since that rapidly becomes abstract, and toward a discussion of the evolution of form. He may have a point and I think back to my own undegraduate days where I was most influenced by Thomas Eisner's little book on animal adaptation.

"Let's show students embryos, Hox clusters, stripes, spots and all the glory of making of animal form. The evolutionary concepts will follow naturally."

From Gene to Pattern. Used with permission:

He doesn't ignore population genetics and natural selection and clearly understands the power of selection to shape adaptations. Indeed he argues that we need to show students how even small fitness differences can lead to profound evolutionary changes over time. Nicholas Wade in Before the Dawn makes a similar point.

On another point Carroll directly address Behe's Darwin's Black Box and notes that Behe expected to find evidence of the creator when the black box of the cell was opened, but instead when opened, there is another type of genetics-developmental genetics.

Other Links and References:

Carroll Sean(2005) Endless Forms Most Beautiful. W.W. Norton NY. xi + 350p

Sean Carroll's home page(http://www.molbio.wisc.edu/carroll/)

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