Meet the relatives

It is an interesting fact that, to the best of our knowledge, all life on Earth is related, we are all part of the same family tree (yes, even arsenic munching bacteria from California). So when we looked at publishing content about Dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasties it seemed obvious, and far more useful and interesting, to extend Wildlife Finder rather than build a whole new site. And that’s just what we’ve done.

Hillis Plot

You can now watch video clips and discover BBC news stories about prehistoric life on Earth. We’ve published the best bits from TV series such as Walking with Dinosaurs and Walking with Beasts as well as episodes from Horizon and of course we’re also linking to relevant radio programmes and news stories. Continue reading “Meet the relatives”

Interesting stuff from around the web 2009-02-04

Hippos are more closely related to their whale cousins than they (hippos) are to anything else
Hippos are more closely related to their whale cousins than they (hippos) are to anything else

Tree of Life – evolution interactive – Darwin 200 – Wellcome Trust
Want to know the concestor of two species then this is for you. And they have obviously spent time on the visual and interaction design and it’s great they have released it under a Creative Commons license. But, but because they haven’t provided URLs for each of the taxa it’s lost to the web, which is such a shame.

Google Latitude – see where you friends are in realtime [Google]
A service for sharing (primarily via your mobile phone) your location with friends and family and as such it’s similar to BrightKite and FireEagle. If Google integrate this into existing services, that is it becomes a service sat behind Google search and maps, then this could be a bit of a killer if only because that’s where people’s attention is. That said FireEagle is a generative location exchanging service.

How Twitter Was Born [140 Characters]
Interesting read about the birth and early days of Twitter.

Visualising our SVN commit history [whomwah]
Deeply cool.

Listen to Yourself [xkcd]
YouTube comments are a mess — this could the be answer, so might making the site about people and their videos rather than videos with some comments.

Interesting stuff from around the web 2008-09-21

Eadward Muybridge’s 1878 investigation into whether horses’ feet were actually all off the ground at once during a trot.
Eadward Muybridge’s 1878 investigation into whether horses’ feet were actually all off the ground at once during a trot.

Born To Run – Human Evolution [DISCOVER Magazine]
Biomechanical research reveals a surprising key to the survival of our species: Humans are built to outrun nearly every other animal on the planet over long distances.

Prisoner’s Dilemma Visualisation [James Alliban]
Nice visualisation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma (a classic example of game theory) using Processing.

More Google news

Google Visualization API [Google Code]
The Google Visualization API lets you access multiple sources of structured data that you can display, choosing from a large selection of visualizations.

GAudi – Google’s new audio index [Official Google Blog]
It’s currently in Google Labs and is restricted to content from political sources but it still looks interesting. In addition to being able to search for terms you can also jump directly to the point in the video where the keyword is mentioned.

The social web: All about the small stuff [Official Google Blog]
The promise of the social web is about making it easy to share the small stuff – to make it effortless and rebuild that feeling of connectedness that comes from knowing the details.

More background on Matt’s hack: streaming content to iTunes

Things to do with /programmes #431: iTunes! [BBC Radio Labs]
Matt’s write up of his work on streaming iPlayer content through iTunes.

Very surprised the blog sphere hasn’t picked up on the implications of this hack but there you go.

Point of instantiation

BlueprintSoftware Engineers will be familiar with the idea of instatiation, but for those that aren’t, it’s the representation of an idea, an instance of it – or put another way it’s making something abstract concrete. So for example, a blueprint is instantiated into a building, but also the blueprint itself is an instantiation of the architects ideas.

So that’s all straight forward then? Well no, not always. The trouble is that unless you understand where your point of instantiation is you can easily get yourself in a semantic muddle. Talking at cross purposes, from different frames of reference.

For example, take a couple of recent posts on the on the concept of ancestral species and how to count them. The posts are excellent – well thought out and interesting; and conclude…

…a lot of nonsense is said about this or that taxon being “more evolved” that (sic) another. Most recently we heard that chimps are “more evolved” than humans, in this case because they had more selected gene changes. But often the confusion here is that a species is “more evolved” because there has been more taxonomic change over time. However, no matter what the speciation rates in unit time for a given lineage, it is on average going to be close to the rest of its clade, unless the concestor of that clade is so far back down the evolutionary tree that it includes bacteria, which have a generation time sometimes of hours, and elephants that generate every 40 years or so, in which case the number is largely meaningless.’

The problem the author has with the research that led to the conclusion that ‘chimps are more evolved than humans’ is not, I assume, with the findings themselves (that chimp DNA has been changed more by natural selection than human DNA) but rather with the conclusion, the notion, that chimps are ‘more evolved’.

As discussed elsewhere evolution isn’t about progression towards a platonic ideal, or some absolute notion of better. And I suspect that John is right in his hypothesis that:

“All species at a given time have exactly the same evolutionary duration, and on average, probably the same number of ancestral species, as their nearest relatives.”

But this point can only be extrapolated to mean that no species is ‘more evolved’ than any other if your point of instantiation encompasses the entire evolutionary history of a species – all its evolutionary ancestors. However, if your point of instantiation is different – say only the ancestral species since the concestor (most recent common ancestor) as with the research looking at Chimp and Human DNA then ‘more’ has a different meaning. And different implications.


Better is contextual not absolute

DNANew Scientist has a report that evolutionary biologists from the University of Michigan have found evidence that chimps are ‘more’ evolved than humans.

It appears that, since we split from our common ancestor around 6 million years ago, chimpanzee DNA has been changed more by natural selection than human DNA.

Evolutionary geneticist Jianzhi Zhang and colleagues at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, US, compared DNA sequences for 13,888 genes shared by human, chimp and rhesus macaques.

For each DNA letter at which the human or chimp genes differ from our shared ancestral form – inferred from the corresponding gene in macaques – researchers noted whether the change led to an altered protein. Genes that have been transformed by natural selection show an unusually high proportion of mutations leading to altered proteins.

Zhang’s team found that 233 chimp genes, compared with only 154 human ones, have been changed by selection since chimps and humans split from their common ancestor about 6 million years ago.

Many people probably find these results surprising. Indeed, I suspect many people will simply find it unbelievable or even offensive. But even leaving those people aside, I suspect that most people will be surprised because they see evolution as a progression towards some platonic ideal, some absolute notion of better.

The belief that evolution is a march towards an objective end point is probably due to a mixture of a few things including our own egos i.e. “we’re the best, most evolved, most successful species and everything else is evolving towards being like us, right?” That’s why sci-fi, set in the future, show everyday animals having evolved into furry humans. But the concept is also reinforced by diagrams of the evolutionary tree – which places mammals (and especially humans) at the top of the tree and invertebrates at the bottom.

The trouble is that while the relationship between species can helpfully be represented as branches; the notion of progression from ‘bad’ to ‘good’ from ‘less evolved’ to ‘more evolved’ is also inferred from such diagrams and this is misleading. Sorry, I mean untrue. Humans aren’t better evolved than other species – because better only makes sense from the context of the individual species in a specific niche. Oak trees are best at what they do, where they do it; bacteria species at what they do, and humans at what we do.

So other species, such as chimps, may well be ‘more’ evolved than humans i.e. their DNA has undergone more change; but importantly all species are as equally ‘well’ evolved as each other (and that includes humans) because species are selected by their local environment not against some abstract notion of best.

10 Downing Street petition to abolish faith schools and prohibit the teaching of creationism and other religious mythology in UK schools

You might be interested in signing-up to this 10 Downing Street petition:

“We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Abolish all faith schools and prohibit the teaching of creationism and other religious mythology in all UK schools.”

“Faith schools remove the rights of children to choose their own religious, philosophical and ethical beliefs. They also sanction ethnic segregation and create tension and divisiveness within society. Schools should be places where children are given a free education, not centres for indoctrination. Creationism and other religious myths should not be taught as fact regardless of the funding status of a school. Abolishing faith schools will provide children with more freedom of choice and help to promote a fully multi-cultural, peaceful society.”